Music Subscription Services Reach for an Edge

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, May 22, 2005

Napster Inc. should dump its "Do the Math" ad campaign before it gets embarrassing. By any calculation, its all-you-can-download Napster To Go service can't compete with the subscription plans just launched by RealNetworks Inc. and Yahoo Inc.

These new offerings remedy the glaring flaw of Napster To Go -- the way it seems to serve the record labels' interests a little too well. Napster To Go's $14.95 monthly fee permits subscribers to collect all the music they want and listen to it on some Windows Media-compatible digital music players. But if they stop paying, the music stops playing -- and getting a permanent copy that can be burned to CD requires purchasing it anew at the full list price of 99 cents.

RealNetworks' Rhapsody and Yahoo's Music Unlimited deliver the music-for-rent idea in smarter, fairer ways. Rhapsody lets anybody listen to 25 songs a month for free and offers subscribers who want to buy a song a 10-cent discount. Yahoo's service costs less than half Napster To Go's rate and offers subscribers a steeper discount on purchases-- 20 cents off each permanent download.

Both just might tempt iTunes shoppers -- well, those running Windows, as neither new service works on a Mac.

Seattle-based Real's Rhapsody ( ) is the weaker contender of the two, thanks to its greater cost and complexity. Rhapsody, which debuted back in late 2001 as a listen-only service, now comes in four flavors, continuing Real's long tradition of perplexing users with overlapping, seemingly redundant offerings.

(Real also still offers a download-only store in its separate RealPlayer software, which seems even less appealing than before next to the clean, largely nuisance-free Rhapsody.)

At the low end, anybody can download the Rhapsody program (Win 98 SE or newer) to listen to 25 tracks a month free, out of a 1.1 million-song inventory. They can also buy songs at 99 cents each from a million-song catalogue.

The list of compatible players includes the usual Windows Media-based models but also Palm handheld organizers and -- thanks to an update to Real's Harmony software -- Apple iPods as well. Despite earlier iPod revisions by Apple to quash Harmony, I had no issues moving a purchased album onto an iPod Photo and an iPod Mini. (I had major issues trying to repeat that feat with two Palm handhelds, the new Tungsten E2 and LifeDrive; Rhapsody didn't even see them when plugged into the computer.)

A $4.99-a-month upgrade adds a long list of Web radio stations, plus the ability to create your own: Pick 10 artists you like, name the station, and click the play button. The results bring the same delightful surprises as shuffling through a musically savvy friend's iPod.

Finally, two pricier, Windows XP-only subscription offerings pile on unlimited downloads on a rental basis. An $8.99 option allows playback only on computers, while the flagship $14.99 plan includes the ability to copy these files to music players that support the latest version of Microsoft's Windows Media software (such as the iRiver H10 successfully tested).

These for-rent downloads can't be burned to CD and require that you go online once a month to allow Rhapsody's software to confirm your subscription status.

If you want to end those restrictions, you can buy songs at 89 cents each, 10 percent off the non-subscriber rate. But Rhapsody hides that option from shoppers: You must hold down the Control key as you click a plus-symbol link next to a song just to see its price.

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