By Jane Black "You're holding me down, turning me round, filling me up with your rules. I've got to admit it's getting better. A little better, all the time."
-- The Beatles
John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote those famous lyrics in 1967. But they could just as well describe the state of legitimate digital music in 2003. When MusicNet, MusicMatch, FullAudio, Rhapsody, and label-backed PressPlay launched new services in 2001, they were all about what you couldn't do. You couldn't stream or download more than a set number of songs. You couldn't burn music on a CD. You couldn't transfer music to a portable MP3 player (see BW Online, 12/28/01, "Pay-to-Play Music: Lots of Missed Notes").
Some restrictions still exist today. You can't download Getting Better All the Time -- or any other Beatles tune for that matter -- on any of the legitimate services because Michael Jackson, who owns the publishing rights to the Beatles catalog, refuses to grant license rights (see BW Online, 4/22/03, "Digital Music: Still Scores Left to Settle").
However, things clearly are getting better all the time. Most services now have access to the catalog of the Big Five labels -- Universal Music (V), Sony Music (SNE), Warner Music (AOL), BMG, and EMI, which together account for 80% of recorded music (sans Beatles). Most services offer unlimited streaming and "tethered downloads," which means you can download a song to your hard drive, but you can't burn it to a CD or a portable player.
REAL SERVICE. All the services -- except AOL MusicNet -- have excellent search engines for recommending similar music, as well as programmed radio stations that help music lovers discover new artists. It's features like these that distinguish the sites as real services, not just free-for-all music swap shops like the seminal Napster.
As the services continue to lure more labels, artists, and publishers to make their music available online, the value-added features become, well, more valuable. In fact, if you really love music, it may be time to think about trying out a subscription service. Here's a rundown of four legal subscription services -- MusicMatch, Full Audio, AOL MusicNet, and PressPlay -- that have recently launched new and improved versions.
Key features: Premium radio, unlimited streaming
Price: $6.95 per month
Throughout its six-year history, MusicMatch's strategy has been to never overpromise. That's still true with its latest subscription service, MusicMatch MX Platinum.
MusicMatch MX offers four ways to listen to music. First, it has preprogrammed radio stations covering all the major genres -- alternative rock, R&B, jazz, country -- as well as some intriguing choices such as world beat and French hits. Second, you can also program your own radio station by mixing and matching the stations and indicating how much of each type of music you would like to hear. In about three minutes, I created a "weekend" station with a "lot" of jazz, "some" alternative rock, a "little" world beat, and (don't laugh) a few French hits.
The third service is ArtistMatch, probably one of the best music discovery tools on the Net. Plug in an artist -- say singer/songwriter Sarah McLaughlin -- and MusicMatch will create a station that includes her music as well as 82 other artists with a similar sound, including Tori Amos, Dido, and Natalie Merchant. MusicMatch even has recommendations for bands not in its catalog. The music of one of my favorite Brit bands, Badly Drawn Boy, is not available on any digital service. But rather than leave me unsatisfied, MusicMatch was able to play me a mix of similar artists that met my hunger to hear a slow, melodious ballad.
Finally, MusicMatch offers Artist-on-Demand, a tool that lets you choose to hear music by one performer. You can't pick a specific song, but you can skip past ones you may not like, rewind those you do, and replay them. It's not truly "on demand," but it's darn close. Given the state of digital music today, MusicMatch is a great product at a great price.
Unlike its competitors, MusicMatch doesn't offer downloads or burning. And while that can be limiting, it also means that you don't have to pay attention to the complex rules and myriad exceptions that plague more ambitious services, such as MusicNet and PressPlay. That's one reason MusicMatch is the most popular pay service on the Web, with 140,000 paying subscribers.
FullAudio's Music Now
Key features: Premium radio; unlimited streaming and tethered downloads; plus à la carte permanent, burnable downloads
Price: $9.95 per month; 99 cents per permanent download
FullAudio's newest release, available through Internet service providers Earthlink (ELINK) and Charter Communications (CHTR), aims to beat MusicMatch at its own game. This service highlights premium radio and offers users the option to download tracks they like. It's a worthy goal, but it doesn't quite hit the right note.
The radio offering is broad, though none of the stations fits my personal taste. The "Lounge" music station had too much electronica. Alternative rock sometimes sounded like heavy metal. And each station has a D.J. intro to "brand" it. One of the reasons I'd pay for music is so that I don't ever have to hear a D.J. again.
Finding individual songs to download and plug into playlists is difficult. On top of that, the service is sluggish and crashed my PC several times during testing. Without an artist's name, I ended up browsing endless alphabetical lists, often listening to a new artist before I found one I was looking for. Maybe that's meant to count as music discovery, but it's not good enough to lure file traders from free services.
MusicNow does have several great features that the other services lack. For one, it offers TrackPacks -- a CD's worth of songs that the service recommends based on your listening habits. When I searched for Ella Fitzgerald, I had the choice of either listening to one of her albums or the "Cole Porter Love Songs" TrackPack with songs performed by Diana Krall, Lena Horn, and Frank Sinatra. In one click, I downloaded all 10 tracks instantly and had an hour's worth of music.
MusicNow also creates "auto-playlists" based on the music in your collection, so you can instantly hear the tracks you play most often or the ones you've downloaded and haven't yet had time to listen to. These features allow you to sit back and enjoy your music, rather than spending hours organizing it at your PC.
Key features: Unlimited streaming and tethered downloads; limited burning
Price: $8.95 per month unlimited streaming and tethered downloads with AOL subscription; $17.95 unlimited streaming and tethered downloads, plus 10 permanent downloads
With online titans RealNetworks (RNWK) and AOL behind it, it's hard to understand just why AOL's MusicNet service falls so flat. True to AOL's heritage, it's incredibly easy to use. Even Grandma will know what to do with choices like "Listen Now" or "Download Now." But unlike its competitors, MusicNet on AOL doesn't offer integrated radio. (For that you have to go to AOL's Radio page.) Nor does it offer music recommendations -- an omission that's hard to understand for an offering that needs to be "better than free" to lure file traders from the illicit peer-to-peer services.
The main discovery tool is a search box, but even that's faulty. You can search by artist, album, song title, or genre. After I found my favorite artists, I searched "Brit Pop" and "Trip Hop," two fairly common contemporary music styles, to find more I might like. Both searches came up empty. In contrast, a search for "Jazz" and "Country" returned too many songs to be useful.
Once you find what you're looking for, managing the music isn't any easier. I couldn't add tracks to my library without first assigning them to a playlist. That means if I want to add my favorite U2 track to my "weekend" playlist and my "workout" playlist I have to search for the files twice and add them separately to each. And since it's all browser-based, the process can be slow.
AOL members get a free 30-day trial of the service. It's a good way to lure customers. But MusicNet on AOL won't give them a true taste for the power of digital music. And if AOL doesn't fix the major irritants fast, it likely won't keep subscribers for long.
Key features: Premium radio, unlimited streaming and tethered downloads; limited burning
Price: $9.95 per month unlimited streaming and tethered downloads; $17.95 unlimited streaming and tethered downloads, plus 10 burnable downloads. Extra download packs available: Five for $5.95; 10 for $9.95
For the full-range of features, PressPlay is the hands-down winner. Streaming, downloading, burning, and adding tracks to a playlist are one click away, whether you're browsing for an artist, an album, or listening to a preprogrammed radio station. That makes amassing a great music collection a cinch: After just 45 minutes of using PressPlay I had "bookmarked" and catalogued some 60 songs, or four hours worth of music. The next 60 came in half that time -- even though I could still only listen to them on my computer.
Different people want different things from a music service. My priority is discovering new music. And PressPlay delivers. Radio PressPlay offers the standard jazz, country, and rock stations, as well as a few you didn't know you needed like "The Thorn," a collection of sad songs for the lonely or broken hearted, and "The Velvet Lounge," schlocky listening for your trip to Vegas which includes those Tom Jones, Wayne Newton, and Johnny Mathis songs you secretly love.
You can also find music by searching the Billboard charts by year and season. I looked up songs from the year I was born (don't ask when) and in two clicks made a playlist for my upcoming birthday party.
PressPlay definitely works better with broadband. If you're always on, you can simply bookmark tracks. Listen to them once or 100 times. It doesn't matter, because they're not taking up space on your hard drive. Still, company executives insist that the service also caters to dial-up users, who can use tethered downloads to get the same experience. About 50% of subscribers are still on a dial-up connection.
Like its competitors, PressPlay still doesn't have all the songs you want. In addition to no Beatles, it has no Michael Jackson and only a limited Madonna selection. And the more you use it, the more gaps you find in the catalog. Still, the only downside to PressPlay is that so many options make it easy to be overwhelmed. Press on. Choice is not to be underestimated in the world of digital music. And once you get the hang of it, you'll experience music like never before.
Of course, that's the goal of every digital music service: To make getting music off the Internet "better than free." The latest generation of services are a giant step closer to revolutionizing the industry. Though they still have hiccups, the good services are well worth a try. Black is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York