MTV's Urge has kinks to work out

May 25, 2006|By DAVID COLKER | DAVID COLKER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

When Microsoft and MTV show up at a party - as a couple - attention must be paid.

The two powerhouses joined forces to create a music subscription and download service called Urge, which debuted May 17.

The subscriptions, which cost about $10 a month, allow unlimited streaming of songs from Urge's catalog of nearly 2 million selections.

If you want to buy the songs, it's 99 cents per download.

Microsoft Corp. and MTV Networks, which is owned by Viacom Inc., were not the first to the subscription/download party. Napster, Rhapsody (owned by RealNetworks Inc.) and Yahoo Music Unlimited were already there, among others, offering roughly the same selection.

But the subscription model has yet to catch on in a big way. Most people prefer to download songs, and downloading is overwhelmingly dominated by Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes.

So, can Urge be the salvation for the subscription model? Can it be the breakthrough service that finally takes a bite out of Apple?

Based on an early look, probably not.

It does have some nice, distinguishing features and a handsome interface. Its built-in playlists, blogs and use of links are especially attractive and give it one of the best approaches to subscription. It does not, however, offer anything revolutionary.

Perhaps its greatest asset lies in the considerable promotional and advertising resources of Microsoft and MTV. For starters, Urge is built into the newest version of Microsoft's widely used Windows Media Player, which also became available May 17.

Apart from the widespread apathy to subscription music, Urge faces another disadvantage: portability. Although subscription selections can be played on some portable music players for an extra $5 a month, they won't play on Apple's ubiquitous iPod.

In addition, music downloads purchased on Urge - as well as Napster, Rhapsody and Yahoo - can't be played on the iPod unless the songs are first burned to CD and then reconverted to MP3.

If you want to give Urge a try, however, it does have a lot to offer, especially if you use a portable player that is compatible with the service - a list of them can be found at urge.com - or listen to music a lot at home.

You can try it for free with a 14-day trial subscription. You can even comparison shop among subscriptions - the three other major services also offer free trials.

Urge, which can be accessed only through Windows Media Player on PCs, can be downloaded from its Web site. The well-designed welcome screen led to several short articles on pop, rock, hip-hop and country performers. Each feature was accompanied by a playlist that included songs by the artist and related performers or influences. The playlists can be played in full by subscribers.

I also liked the search engine, which offers choices among artists, albums and song titles after you enter just a few letters. It was simple and expedient, sometimes to a fault, especially with one of the most neglected of music genres on commercial online services - classical.

I put the prolific Antonio Vivaldi in the search engine and it came up with only six albums, three of which were performances of The Four Seasons. There were many more albums of Vivaldi, but they were not easy to find. Rhapsody does a better job in this area because it allows you to search by composer.

Another upside to Urge is specialization within genres. For example, under hip-hop, there were links to 18 categories including Latin rap, gangsta and turntablism, each with its own artists.

Also included are radio stations of various genres that provide pre-recorded listening. For example, three stations were suggested when I did a search on the alternative-country group Wilco.

On Rhapsody, I could choose from not only genre stations but also one that was all Wilco.

Urge has one glaring omission - the ability to share playlists with other subscribers. An MTV spokeswoman said the feature would eventually be added.

Time will tell whether Urge's version of subscription and paid downloading will attract the masses. If Microsoft and MTV can't pull it off, it's hard to imagine anyone making a go of it.

Unless, of course, someone gets to bring Apple along as a date.

Then again, Apple could choose to throw its own subscription party. Stay tuned.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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