Music Subscription Services Reach for an Edge

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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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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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