Music to your Eyes: Qello

If you're the sort of person who enjoys watching classic concert films and music documentaries (and let's face it, you're reading Sound+Vision, so I'm pretty sure you are), you probably wouldn't mind having access to a big archive if such things, available from wherever you are on almost any device.

Qello is here to help.

The service, which launched in 2009 and is run by a team of music and tech veterans, is a music-centric video streaming app, offering (for a $4.99/month all-access membership fee - without paying, you can see previews and check out the Qello TV channels; no whole films without ponying up) a collection of concert videos and music docs in HD (much of the content is sourced from DVD, so take that with a grain of salt) served up via ia a friendly, multiplatform portal, with the accent on tablet, smartphone, and connected TV access (there is a Web front end, but at this point its aimed at account maintenance, not viewing). The latest addition - iOS, with a fully fledged iPad app that we got to spend some time with lately - rolled out this past month.

You could think of Qello as a video-specific take on the Wolfgang's Vault idea; though the team has bigger fish to fry - the hope is that it becomes a one-stop shop for music video streaming - a video Spotify.

You can browse by artist, genre, or decade, and search the entire collection. You can also fire up Qello TV and let the service put together a Pandora-style stream for your, drawn from the entire library or any generic subset thereof. You can also let Qello search your iTunes library, from which it'll make recommendations. If that library is full of obscurities, you may end up with some reasonably good guesses (Qello's jaunt through my extreme-metal and improvised music-heavy library, with no artists directly represented in the Qello collection, returned videos from Mastodon, Frank Zappa, Return to Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra - a pretty solid job, I'd say.)

The library tends heavily towards classic rock (as you'd expect, given that the majority of what's on tap are concerts and album retrospective documentaries), but as CEO Brian Lisi told me, the revenue-sharing model the company has in place is aimed at rectifying that. A revenue-sharing agreement assures that a good chunk of the income stream from subscriptions goes back to licensors and producers; the idea is to encourage the production of more content in the idiom. Things being the way they are in the live music industry, it's beyond the reach of most bands to have concerts shot at all otherwise, Lisi said. Let's hope Qello makes an impact.

Concert recordings make up the bulk of the offerings here, ranging from big name tour films like the Rolling Stones Some Girls: Live in Texas to scrappier new bands captured live at places like Austin's 5th Street Studios, NYC's Rockwood Music Hall, and Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg. The library is certainly broad enough that I'd imagine most rock fans would find something of interest here; should your tastes range far afield you'll be less well catered too, however - country and jazz offerings are relatively limited, and certain pop subgenres (electronic music, for one) could really stand some upgrades. There are some nice surprises here - a full Mink De Ville set at Montreux from 1982, for one. Music originating outside the English-speaking world is largely absent (aside from big names like Hugh Masekela and Youssou N'dour, for example, music from Africa is scarcely represented). But by and large that reflects the sort of material in the format for which the rights are readily available, and there's a lot of high-quality stuff here - just be aware.

On the documentary front, you'll find some gems here - the 1989 Mingus doc/performance film Epitaph, is here (presented, oddly enough with a timecode burn-in); I Need That Record!, Brendan Toller's charmingly shabby 2009 doc on the trials and travails of indie record shops, is also on offer. The company has acquired the streaming rights to a bunch of great titles from Eagle Rock's Classic Albums series, so whether your tastes run towards Iron Maiden, Elton John, Frank Zappa, or Simply Red, you'll find the inside scoop on some beloved tracks here.

Not into watching music films in their entirety? The apps let you assemble the concert of your dreams (or, more realistically, your own private MTV) for a a "setlist" function. As you'd expect these days, you can share your lists in your favorite social venues (and the rest of your viewing activity as well, should you so desire). The "setlist" playlist function is interesting, if a bit schizophrenic in practice - the mood changes between pieces of video are a lot more jarring than between pieces of music, obviously, and mixing chapters of documentaries with segments of concerts can be somewhat less than satisfying aesthetically. Depending on my network connection, I found that I ran occasionally into delays between videos. Still, if you're in a somewhat retro mood, programming your personal music video channel can be fun, and could make a nice tool to have on hand for entertaining (as would the TV feature)

The downside? When Qello's working optimally, it's very nice looking, and the picture and sound quality of the transfers are quite good. Now, don't get me wrong - it'd be hard to complain if Qello wasn't billed specifically as an "HD" service, but since it is, one can't help but feel that it isn't quite ready for prime time, at least in the mobile arena. In action, it does feel like a bit of a work in progress on the streaming quality side, though it's impossible to say whether the service or the variable nature of Wi-Fi streaming is at fault here. Playback isn't totally seamless on all devices - load times can be slowish, fast forward and reverse hang every now and again, as mentioned above playback in setlists isn't quite gapless, freezes, noticeable a/v sync slippages, and crashes (especially on the iPad, sometimes related to system notifications, I think) happened occasionally, and most significantly, stream quality varied quite a bit with network strength.

On that note, the adaptive streaming routine used here can be fairly annoying in a suboptimal enviromment, switches audio stream quality along with video to keep up with changing network conditions. Watching the nicely recorded 2009 30 Years of Heaven & Hell (the late Ronnie James Dio's last show with the Sabbath lineup) was a bit of a mess via an iPad on our office Wi-Fi, enjoyable most of the time, but with frequent dropouts and shifts in video resolution and stream quality. It's hard to blame the app or service for that, however - just something to keep in mind. The Smart TV and Google TV apps, of course, are more forgiving if you're using a hardwired connection. Maybe its a buffering scheme issue? It's hard to say.

Basically, make sure you've got an adequate connection if you're picky about uninterrupted quality playback, or be prepared for occasional dropouts.

The bottom line? this service is a whole lot of fun, and fills a big hole by presenting a bunch of concert and doc material that's been difficult to find lately during the transition from DVD to Blu-ray and streaming formats. A few streaming glitches are forgivable, and pretty much par for the course for such things these days. If you like to watch concert recordings, you really can't lose by checking this service out.

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