Web sites meant to get listeners to rent, not own

January 10, 2002|By Michael Stroh

Major labels quietly unveiled two new online music stores last month, hoping to convince consumers it's better to pay to play.

But a quick tour of MusicNet and Pressplay show that it might not be easy to wean digital music aficionados off free-music bazaars such as Kazaa, Morpheus and Aimster. Many Billboard chart-toppers are nowhere to be found. Worse, the labels seem to believe consumers would rather rent their music than own it.

MusicNet (www.musicnet .com), backed by Bertelsmann, AOL Time Warner and EMI, does not allow downloaded songs to be burned onto compact discs or toted around in digital audio players. To hear music you've paid for, you have to sit within earshot of your PC.

Subscriptions start at $9.95 a month for 100 music downloads and 100 music streams. Each download expires in 30 days unless listeners renew their subscriptions.

Pressplay (www.pressplay .com), sponsored by Sony, Universal and others, is a touch more flexible, offering an option for subscribers to burn songs onto recordable CDs, making it possible to take songs on the road. (The songs are burned in Windows Media Audio format, which tech-savvy users can copy back onto their computers as MP3 files.)

Packages range from $9.95 to $24.95 per month, with the top plan offering 1,000 streamed tunes, 100 downloads and 20 burned tracks. Like MusicNet, downloaded tunes stop playing when subscribers stop paying. The tracks downloaded for burning to CD are yours forever.

It remains to be seen whether consumers will take to this Blockbuster-style approach to music distribution. Or whether the federal government will approve: The music labels are in the midst of an antitrust probe by the Justice Department over their digital music practices.

Ultimately, the success of the industry's efforts to win over music buyers - and beat pirates - may hinge on whether labels can deliver extra tunes, liner notes and other goodies pirates can't, said P.J. McNealy, an music industry analyst at Gartner Group.

By that measure, the labels aren't quite yet in tune. "It's a challenge to compete against free," McNealy said.

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