Napster's back

iTunes rocks

Music: Services' features vary in tough fight for fans willing to pay.

November 27, 2003|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Napster 2.0, the legitimate reincarnation of the outlaw music service shut down by the recording industry two years ago, tries to do so many things at once that it doesn't quite succeed at any of them.

Launched Oct. 29, the new Napster (www.napster.com) is an upgrade of the music service previously called pressplay, which started in 2001 and was among the best of the early attempts to sell songs online.

But standing still is dangerous in such a rapidly changing field, and Napster's kitty mascot has to contend with a new top cat in town: Apple Computer's elegant iTunes Music Store (www.itunes.com), launched for Windows on Oct. 16.

There's also strong competition from two lesser-known rivals, MusicMatch (www.musicmatch.com) and Rhapsody (www.listen.com).

Napster does have redeeming features; I like the unlimited listening available for $9.95 a month, a great way to explore the library of 500,000 tracks spanning almost every genre.

There are eight online music services with licenses to sell music from all five major groups - BMG, EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner. According to colleague Dawn Chmielewski, Amazon.com, Sony and Wal-Mart will start services soon.

They're all chasing the elusive goal of persuading music lovers to pay for music on the Internet instead of grabbing songs for free from the original Napster's pirate progeny, such as Kazaa, LimeWire and Grokster.

It's too soon to say which legal services will survive, or what features consumers will prefer. For now, the services are coalescing around three approaches:

Downloads. Tracks you buy, typically for 99 cents, with rights to record, or "burn," to compact disc or transfer into portable music players.

Streaming. Tracks you can hear on your computer as often as you want, as long as you subscribe to the service.

Custom radio. Music channels programmed by the services, as part of a subscription, usually allowing the skipping of songs. This shouldn't be confused with merely providing a directory of Internet radio stations, as some services also do.

Napster is offering all three approaches, while Apple iTunes provides only downloads.

This makes Napster a somewhat confusing place. Most individual tracks are available for purchase or can be streamed by listeners paying $9.95 a month for premium membership. But a significant minority are listen-only tracks that can't be purchased, or to buy-only tracks that can't be streamed and provide only a 30-second sample.

In stark contrast, every track on iTunes can be purchased.

Napster also falls short in offering albums. Both iTunes and Napster sell many albums for a fixed price - $9.99 for iTunes and $9.95 for Napster; that saves several dollars when the album has 12 or 14 or 15 tracks. But many albums on Napster don't offer that fixed price; instead, you must buy the tracks individually at a higher price.

Again, iTunes stands in contrast with few albums costing more than $9.99.

For shoppers who want to buy complete albums rather than individual songs, this makes Napster a significantly more expensive place than iTunes.

A Napster spokeswoman said that 90 percent of the service's 500,000 tracks are available for both purchase and streaming - leaving just 10 percent that are either listen-only or buy-only. She didn't have a figure on what percentage of albums go for $9.95. My estimate would be far less than 50 percent.

The scattered buy-only tracks also undermine the experience of streaming. Several times, I'd select an entire album of tracks to play on my computer, then find one or two songs stopped after just 30 seconds.

Still, streaming is a great way to learn about new music. With iTunes, you can't hear more than 30-second samples without buying tracks or albums - a step most of us won't make for music we don't already know. Napster and rivals Rhapsody and Streamwaves (www.streamwaves.com) offer all-you-can-eat browsing once you've paid the monthly fee. This allows you to explore new artists at the computer, then buy what you like.

One other gripe has to do with Napster's interface for searching and browsing. Navigation often required several clicks to reach an artist, album or song, whereas iTunes would take only one click.

Despite these limitations, Napster is worth checking. The software is free, as is the software for iTunes, and lets you view what the service offers before spending any money on downloads or subscriptions.

Here are the technical details: You'll need Windows XP or Windows 2000 to run either service; iTunes is also available for the Macintosh. Napster downloads come in WMA format at 128 kilobits per second and can be transferred to portable players compatible with copy-protected WMA. Microsoft has a Web page listing about 40 devices (http://windowsmedia.com/9series/Persona lization/CoolDevices .asp). You can also burn Napster downloads to CD as many times as you want, although you must shuffle the playlist of songs after every five burns.

ITunes allows unlimited burning, with playlists changed after every 10 burns, but downloads can be transferred only into Apple's iPod player.

You should be ready for a certain amount of disappointment with any of the legal-to-use services: The record labels, performers and composers have yet to reach licensing agreements for many popular works.

The gap is closing, however. Last week, Napster was offering nine of the top 10 Billboard singles, while iTunes had seven. Within a year or two, I expect the library of licensed music to be big enough to undercut everything about online piracy except the lure of getting something for nothing.

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