Mixing up music with Internet

China daily 2003-08-30

AMSTERDAM, the Netherlands: After five years of regarding one another
with fear and contempt, the music and technology industries are
finally rolling out services that aim to make a business out of
downloading music.

Competing with free music services like Kazaa and Morpheus is not an
enviable position for anyone. But with the record industry suing
individual users of those services for copyright infringement,
consumers will almost certainly be looking for viable alternatives.

In the last four months, companies like Apple Computer Inc, Microsoft
Corp, RealNetworks Inc and BuyMusic.com, have struck licensing deals
with the world's largest record companies to begin offering
alternatives that allow users to download individual songs for around
US$1 each.

The services all perform differently. You will be disappointed if
you're looking for the wide selection that the free services offer.
Some sites are easier to navigate than others. Unlike most
conventional CDs, there are limitations to how many times you can copy
a song you've bought. And of course, you have to pay.

"They've been designed around how the industry wants to sell music,
rather than how consumers want to buy it," says senior yst Rebecca
Jennings at Forrester Research in London.

On the positive side, you can buy downloads of complete albums more
cheaply than buying the compact discs in stores. In most cases, the
quality and speed of downloads are more reliable - and you won't get
sued for using them.

With much fanfare, Apple launched its pay-per-download tunes service
in late April. In its first month, it sold 3 million songs to a
relatively small community of Macintosh users in the United States, a
tiny fraction of computer users.

In recent months, BuyMusic, which was started by Buy.com founder Scott
Blum, presented itself as the iTunes equivalent for users of Microsoft
Windows-based computers. RealNetworks and Microsoft followed suit
shortly thereafter. America Online and Amazon.com are among those
considering similar services.

ITunes, which is only available in the United States, offers a flat
rate of 99-US cents-per-song, or US$9.99 for an entire album.

BuyMusic.com says it offers songs starting at 79 US cents each and
US$7.95 an album, but most songs are in the 99 US cent to US$1.14
range, and albums cost US$9.49 to US$12.79.

RealNetworks' Rhapsody sells songs for 79 US cents, but only after a
US$9.95 monthly subscription fee.

MSN Music Club, which is mainly available in Europe, is even more
convoluted in its pricing. Songs are essentially the equivalent of 83
pence to 99 pence each - or about US$1.31 to US$1.56. Users cannot buy
songs outright from the service. Instead they must buy "credits" that
can be redeemed for individual songs. One song typically sells for 100
credits, but MSN sells the credits in bundles of 150 and up. The more
credits you buy the cheaper they are.

Although all sites offer hundreds of thousands of tracks, many early
users failed to find their favorite songs. Songs by The Beatles, for
example, are not available on any online service.

R.E.M.'s most popular songs like "Losing My Religion" or "Everybody
Hurts" are absent on BuyMusic, while MSN Music Club lacks almost all
of David Bowie and Earth, Wind & Fire. More recent albums appear to be
better represented.

Big names like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Madonna, Metallica, Green
Day and Linkin Park refuse to make their songs available as individual
tracks. They want consumers to buy entire albums.

Where the services often provide the most value is in hits by
individual artists by whom you wouldn't necessarily want complete
albums. While BuyMusic came up short on Petula Clark's "Downtown,"
users can find such gems like "Everybody Plays The Fool" by The Main
Ingredient and "Drift Away" by Dobie Gray.

The availability of album sleeves for printing, artist information,
album release dates and the option to sample a song also differs
widely between the different services. ITunes offers artwork, while
MSN Music Club and BuyMusic do not.

MSN Music Club and BuyMusic often lack the option to sample tracks.
MSN Music Club and BuyMusic's artist information and original release
dates are missing or incorrect.

Finally, there are the limitations for customers. Songs from MSN Music
Club and BuyMusic can only be played back with Microsoft's Windows
Media Player, available on personal computers and built into some
portable MP3 players.

Apple's iTunes only plays on its own devices, from computers to the
portable iPod music player. Rhapsody plays on RealNetwork's
proprietary media player.

Apple has restricted consumers to make only three copies of a song, a
line followed by most other services, although BuyMusic sometimes
allows unlimited copying. Rhapsody allows consumers to burn songs on a
CD, but copying onto a portable music player is not permitted.