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'Net Insider:

Forgettable songs?

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 12/17/01            

The first of two record-label-sponsored online music services debuted with much fanfare Dec. 4. I may not be the best judge of the high-falutin world of market research, but it sure seems that MusicNet was designed looking into a mirror - at every major decision point the venture decided to take exactly the wrong path.

After spending a few years lobbing lawyers at Napster, at least some people in the music industry seem to have started to wonder if there was more to this online music phenomenon than just the lure of free music. This was not easy for them to do - it can be hard for light to penetrate through twisted tunnel vision.

As an author, I am not one of those "data wants to be free" folks. I do not support ripping off other people's copyrighted material. I own all the CDs that make up the two-and-a-half days' worth of music I recently put on my PowerBook.

But my first reaction to the Napster explosion was that it should be telling the industry to reexamine its business models. In contrast, that seems to have been the last thing the music industry considered.

The industry eventually figured out that there might be a business lurking somewhere. (The approach reminds me of a joke whose punch line is "there has to be a pony in here somewhere.") The first of the industry's major efforts was announced early this month and seems to have been developed in a vacuum by someone stuck in a logic-reversal space warp.

MusicNet, like a soon-to-be-announced competitor called Pressplay, is a music subscription service. For a monthly fee, customers can listen to streaming audio and download songs to their computers. The basic MusicNet RealOneMusic service, which permits downloading 100 songs and listening to (but not storing) 100 more, costs $9.95 per month, about the cost of a low-end CD. Ten dollars more per month gets you additional songs, plus online Opinion sports and entertainment channels. This all sounds reasonable, but reason soon ends.

From a customer point of view there are a lot of things wrong with MusicNet. You are only renting the songs; if you stop making the monthly payment, the songs get into "Mission Impossible" mode and self-destruct. You also cannot download the songs into a portable MP3 player.

Another issue is that MusicNet and Pressplay are incompatible, which means music downloaded with one isn't playable on the other. So if you don't want to play music in your car or when walking, don't want music from many vendors and don't like the music enough to want to keep it - MusicNet is the service for you.

It may just be me, but this seems like a rather impotent weapon in the fight against the growing number of ways you can get music for free over the 'Net. But who knows, if it stays in business long enough, someday you might be able to keep the songs you pay for and like.

Disclaimer: You get to keep your expensive Harvard education, so Harvard has no opinion on the transient songs of MusicNet.

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