Site makes your CDs near as Net

January 17, 2000|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

If you're even a casual music fan, you probably have a collection of compact discs. The problem is that they're usually at home, and you're not. But if MP3.com has its way, you'll be able to play those CDs from any computer with a connection to the World Wide Web.

The Internet's pioneering digital music site relaunched itself last week with a new service -- free for the time being -- aimed at redefining the way we deal with our music. The idea is that when we buy music, we pay for the right to hear it: Where and how it's stored and transmitted to our ears shouldn't matter.

The recording industry isn't likely to agree, and an army of copyright lawyers and judges will undoubtedly battle over that notion in years to come. But it's an intriguing theory, and one that you can put into practice today.

MP3.com's new service gives you the opportunity to "store" your CDs in a password-protected account on its Web site. By logging onto the site from any PC, you can have those songs broadcast to your computer. It doesn't matter whether you're at home, at work or on the road.

MP3.com has also made instant-availability deals with several online music stores. Order a CD from one of its partners and MP3.com will immediately post the contents to your private database, so you can play the songs immediately on your computer while the CD makes its way to you through the mail.

I tried both services and was surprised at how well they worked.

The first thing you have to do is establish an account with MP3.com--that means providing an e-mail address and other basic information. If you previously established a personal playlist for digital songs or ordered an album from MP3.com's Web site, you already have one of these accounts.

By the way, you should never use your real e-mail address for this sort of thing, unless you want to be bombarded with junk mail. Instead, set up an address on one of the Web's many free mail services, such as Hotmail, Yahoo, AltaVista or Excite.

That done, it's time to download and install the company's free Beam-It software, which is available in Windows and Mac versions (you'll need Mac System 8.5 or higher). To put your albums online, all that remains is to start the program, put a CD in your drive and click the Beam-It button. MP3.com checks the contents of the disc against its database of 40,000 albums. If it's there, you'll have instant access to the album online.

I had no trouble registering several CDs this way. Likewise, when I bought a new Harry Connick Jr. album from Jungle- jeff.com -- one of three online retailers signed up with MP3.com -- the tracks were available on MP3.com's Web site a few minutes later. Just be careful when you shop -- not all the CDs offered for sale have the MP3.com option.

To access the CDs from your computer, you'll need a music player that can handle streaming audio -- songs that are broadcast to you in real time over the Web. Recent versions of Windows and the Mac operating system have one built in, but you can download players with a variety of fancy features from sites such as RealNetworks (www.realnetworks.com).

When you log on to your account, you'll find a screen with a list of albums on one side and a list of tracks on the other. You can play a single track or an entire album, or build a playlist that mixes cuts from any or all of them. You can also add tracks from MP3.com's massive collection of downloadable music files, most of which are from relatively unknown artists.

MP3.com broadcasts the music in RealAudio format, which is compressed for transmission over the Web, so don't expect CD-quality sound, particularly over a dialup Internet connection. What you will get is sound like a decent car radio's reception -- which is pleasant enough.

The new service isn't likely to endear itself to the recording industry, which is already in a panic over the widespread practice of converting CD tracks to compressed digital files (known as MP3s) which can be transmitted, traded and pirated on the Internet.

The industry is desperately trying to come up with its own digital standard -- one that prevents or at least inhibits illegal copying -- but its efforts have bogged down in squabbling between the recording studios and companies making a new generation of digital music players.

Meanwhile, Michael Robertson, MP3.com's chief executive, says his Web site isn't violating any copyright laws. First, he argues, no music is changing hands. No digital files are being uploaded or downloaded: The music is broadcast in a format that can be listened to but not stored.

Just how this protection scheme will stand up under the assault of technology isn't clear. RealNetworks, which licenses the most popular technology used to compress and broadcast audio over the Web, is locked in a bitter court battle with an upstart called Streambox Inc., which has developed software that can decode and store RealAudio broadcasts in unprotected formats, such as MP3 files.

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