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Online Jukeboxes: Britney but No 'Boss'

Authorized services let users tap vast vaults as long as they don't stray from their PCs and can do without key artists.

January 03, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine walking into a candy store where half the bins are empty, and the owner makes you eat everything you buy before you leave.

That's what it's like to use the online music services controlled by the major record companies: Pressplay and MusicNet. Representing a new generation of industry-approved, on-demand services, they promise to provide the music you want to hear, when you want to hear it.

But neither has the breadth of music needed to deliver on that promise. And both require you to do most of your listening at your computer.

Granted, their vaults contain lots of songs--about 100,000 each. The selection grows daily. But they don't come close to matching the selection or portability of the unauthorized free services. Unless and until the courts shut down file-sharing operations such as MusicCity's Morpheus, those services will continue to set a high standard for the competition to meet.

The problems are not unique to Pressplay and MusicNet. None of the authorized on-demand services, which also include Listen .com's Rhapsody and Streamwaves, has lined up the licenses needed to cover the entire waterfront of music. And only one, EMusic, lets you move all the music you buy onto CDs and portable devices.

These shortcomings aren't necessarily fatal flaws, even when the fee is $10 or more a month. The key is to provide more than what consumers can get from other legitimate sources.

To be sure, the first versions of Pressplay and MusicNet offer much more music for the money than CDs and give listeners more control than radio stations do. The trade-off is that both services are narrowly focused on Windows computers, at least initially. And if you don't spend a lot of time online at your PC, it's hard to justify spending upward of $120 a year on these services instead of buying eight to 10 CDs.

From Product to Service

Computers and the Internet are changing the nature of the music business, enabling record companies to sell music as a service instead of a plastic product. Ultimately, analysts predict, consumers no longer will fill their shelves with CDs. They will simply buy access to a complete library of songs online, delivered through wires or the airwaves.

Dozens of independent labels have made their catalogs available online at the EMusic site, www .emusic.com, where users can download versions of the companies' songs for a flat monthly fee. Like the music on CDs, these MP3 files come with no limits on copying or transferring to portable devices.

Aside from EMI, the major record companies have moved gingerly when it comes to online distribution. Instead of the widely used but easily duplicated MP3 format, they have stuck with encrypted formats that can't be copied freely, moved to portable devices or recorded onto CD.

They also have split into two camps, creating competing online music distributors. The corporate parents of Warner Music, BMG and EMI formed MusicNet with RealNetworks Inc., and Universal Music Group and Sony Music launched Pressplay.

In addition to songs from the catalogs of its three owners, MusicNet distributes music from Zomba Recording, home of teen-pop faves Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. Pressplay, meanwhile, offers music from Universal, Sony and EMI--despite EMI's stake in rival MusicNet--as well as half a dozen smaller, independent labels.

Neither service, however, has the rights to all the music in its backers' catalogs. That means no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Garth Brooks or Bruce Springsteen. And some other top artists are represented by only a portion of their work--typically, older albums with minuscule current sales.

Under federal law, an online music service cannot offer songs on demand unless it has struck deals with the labels and the music publishers for the rights to those tracks. Except for EMI, the labels have been slow to grant such licenses, even to one another.

Pressplay and MusicNet representatives say they are determined to get licenses from all the major labels and significant independents. Until they do, however, their lineups are like aging sweaters--too thin to keep you warm. And unless you subscribe, it's hard to tell whether either service will have the artists and songs you like.

Pressplay made its debut last month on Yahoo, MSN Music and Roxio, each linked from www .pressplay.com. The service on each is the same, as Pressplay doesn't allow its marketing partners to fiddle with the knobs.

MusicNet, on the other hand, relies on its retailers to shape the look and feel of the service. The first outlet is RealNetworks, which introduced the MusicNet-powered RealOne Music service last month at www.real.com. America Online has started a test run with MusicNet, which it plans to add to its lineup of radio stations and artist promotions.

Streaming With Pressplay

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