By Jane Black To subscribe or not to subscribe -- that is the question for digital-music fans this holiday season. At long last, alternatives exist to the Sons of Napster, such as MusicCity's Morpheus and LimeWire, which offer loads of music for trading but often with murky sound quality and unreliable downloads. That highlights the strengths of the trio of paid offerings launched in December: crystal-clear fidelity.
The new subscription services include two eagerly anticipated offerings from the Big Five music labels. Pressplay, a venture of Vivendi subsidiary Universal Music Group and Sony Music, went live on Dec. 19. MusicNet, a joint venture of AOL Time Warner (AOL) subsidiary Warner Music, Bertelsmann subsidiary BMG, EMI, and RealNetworks (RNWK), started on Dec. 4. One smaller service, Listen.com, rolled out its Rhapsody service on Dec. 3.
All three offer consumers a simple way to manage digital-music files and discover new artists and tracks. And two allow limited numbers of downloads with CD-quality sound (Rhapsody doesn't offer any downloading) for less than $10 per month. But are they good enough to convince customers to pay? Hardly. A music-loving Hamlet would probably conclude that 'tis still better to suffer the slings and arrows of bad sound quality than pay to play with the current subscription offerings. Here's a quick take on the troika.
This service is sold by RealOne Music, AOL, and Napster (see BW Online 12/5/01, "A Way to Pay the Digital Piper?"). For a monthly fee of $9.95, the service allows subscribers to download 100 tracks and stream another 100. Users select from a collection of more than 100,000 popular tunes in the archives of Warner, BMG, EMI, and independent label Zomba. (A $19.95 RealOne Gold Membership give subscribers 125 downloads and streams, plus access to other video and audio content on RealNetworks, including Major League Baseball Web radio broadcasts.) That's a good selection, but you still might miss many tunes you wished you had.
Subscribers can listen to a streamed version of a song before they commit to downloading it. Once they download a song, they can listen to it as often as they like until the end of the month. At that point, the song disappears from the subscriber's hard drive. To continue to listen to the track, subscribers have to reselect it -- and use up one of their downloads for the next month.
Subscribers who download a song from their work computer would have to download it again if they want to listen to it at home -- and forfeit another chit from their monthly allotment. And you can't burn the tunes onto a CD. For folks who want their music available everywhere and all the time, MusicNet won't work.
COMBINED LISTS. MusicNet's referral service, which functions in a similar manner as Amazon's, does a good job helping fans discover new bands and tracks. Moreover, MusicNet is the only service that allows subscribers to integrate their personal music collections with song downloaded from the service. This allows them to easily create playlists that include all the music they own, a key feature for subscribers who already have a digital-tune database.
Still, in the final assessment, MusicNet falls way short. The monthly expiration system is annoying, as is the lack of consideration for those who want to listen to the same song in multiple locations. And not allowing CD burning simply ignores customers' wishes. Seems to me that MusicNet's backers just aren't ready to commit themselves to a comprehensive digital-music strategy: They prefer to use RealOne Music and AOL as a promotional tool for CDs, rather than letting consumers build up a digital-music collection they can enjoy.
Available at Yahoo, MSN, and Roxio.com, Pressplay is hands-down the most user-friendly of the three services. It does the best job of integrating what digital-music fans love to do -- download files and burn CDs. Unlike MusicNet, Pressplay allows subscribers to build collections over time. Downloaded songs don't disappear from your hard drive at the end of the month, although they will vanish if decide to end your subscription.
Pressplay also lets subscribers access their music from multiple PCs. So, if you've downloaded a song, you can get it again from another computer without being charged. Another nifty feature: Pressplay doesn't deduct a chit from your account if you listen to a song for less than 30 seconds. That's really useful if you can't remember the name of a particular track and just want to figure out which one to download. With songs mostly from the labels that back Pressplay, though, selection remains somewhat limited.
FALSE GIFT. The privilege of burning CDs, however, comes dearly. For the basic $9.95 a month, the Universal/Sony-backed service offers only 30 downloads and 300 streams -- with no burnable tracks. For the $14.95 Silver membership, you get 50 downloads, 500 streams, and 10 burnable tracks. Even at the $24.95 Platinum level, subscribers get only 100 downloads, 1,000 streams, and 20 burns. Pressplay is generous with streaming, but that's really a false gift. To listen to streaming music, subscribers must be online, and streams are far better for sampling music than for listening since so many people still have slow Internet connections.
Searching for music at Pressplay is also less straightforward than at MusicNet. Pressplay guides users to Billboard charts and Pressplay-created playlists rather than having a simple referral feature, which company executives insist is in the works. The service also is designed to look a lot like Napster, which is less attractive than MusicNet but will be very familiar to many digital-music fans. All told, a strong first effort, but work on the prices, guys.
Of the three, Listen.com's Rhapsody service is the toughest sell (see BW Online, 11/30/01, "Rhapsody in Green?"). At the moment, it doesn't have the content rights for any of the major record labels. So no access to most music you've ever heard of -- no Madonna, no Britney Spears, no Miles Davis. The company expects to announce two major-label deals early in 2002, though.
Rhapsody also differs from its competitors in that it's streaming-only. That means subscribers must be online to listen, can never burn a CD, and can't even download tracks. That could provide an insurmountable hurdle for dial-up modem users, who can expect herky-jerky sound quality.
The upside is all-you-can-ingest music, something people want but the other services are loath to offer. For less than $10 a month, Rhapsody subscribers have access to unlimited, CD-quality (if you have a fast connection) streaming music from 43 independent labels. No worries about how many songs you can listen to. And Rhapsody, which improves upon the familiar Napster interface, gives members information about their favorite bands and recommends others they might like.
JUST A TASTE. Another cool feature lets users drag and drop songs and entire albums from the catalog into their private library or playlist to automate listening. In short, Rhapsody is great for independent music freaks with broadband connections who mainly listen to music on their desktop PC. For for mainstream listeners, though, it's off-key.
Will customers pay for any these services? It's easy to criticize MusicNet, Pressplay, and Rhapsody for their obvious failings. In truth, all are fun to use and give subscribers at least a taste of digital music's possibilities. And all three have the distinct advantage of being legal, as the Recording Industry of America presses ahead in its efforts to shut down the surviving file-sharing services.
However, for online-music subscriptions to thrive, they'll need to ante up more good stuff at more reasonable prices. That means more selection, more freedom to burn CDs, more freedom to listen to music where you want, and more downloads for the buck. Black covers technology for BusinessWeek Online in New York