Imagine your favorite music store is about to reopen after months of legal trouble, and you go in to find it a shadow of its former self. What few CDs it has are chained to the shelves, and the clerk says he's negotiating with the two huge stores on either side to get the rest back. So you try the other stores, where the selection is just as incomplete. You still can't walk out with any music--and you have to keep paying every month just to listen to the few tunes in each store. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of kids on the corner who will give you any song you want, for as long as you want it, for free--just as your favorite store used to do.
That's what it feels like to use the three paid digital-music services that are jockeying for your pocket in the wake of the old Napster's demise. They are MusicNet, owned by three of the five big record labels; Pressplay, owned by the other two; and a prelaunch trial version of the newly legal Napster. All three are so restrictive, you would think you were downloading homeland-security documents, not 'N Sync. And because the record labels are still squabbling about Internet licensing, nobody has a complete selection except those street-corner kids: morally dubious services like Morpheus, on which free song swapping still flourishes.
MusicNet is a service found on both AOL (part of the parent company of this magazine) and Real Networks' media player, RealOne. It costs $9.99 a month, and you get 100 downloads timed to expire at the end of that period. To hear them after a month, you must download them again. I barely remember to do the laundry every month; now I have to renew my rights to Peggy Lee?
Pressplay is a little less draconian. For $24.95 a month you get 100 downloads, and the tunes don't expire as long as you remain a subscriber. You also get to burn 20 tracks onto a CD. Downloads are especially efficient: mere seconds on broadband and minutes via modem. This was refreshing after all the transfer errors I'm used to on Morpheus and its underground kin. Now all Pressplay needs is a catalog large enough that I might want 20 songs a month from it.
Napster's trial version has much the same paltry-selection problem. But assuming it can get its hands on some licenses before it launches, the struggling service shows more promise than its record-label rivals. True, most songs are in the protected .nap format, which means you can't burn them onto a CD. But there are a few independent labels that let Napster offer MP3 files that are yours for life. It is hoped more labels will follow suit.
Of course, every song from those kids on the street corner is a play-anywhere, burn-anytime MP3. The big guys may promise more with their secure and speedy downloads, but I'm not switching until I get a file I can keep for, say, a buck a pop. Locking up your mediocre collection is no way to run a music store.