To get people hooked on its Rhapsody subscription music service, RealNetworks Inc. plans to let them listen for free -- up to a point.
The company unveiled Tuesday an advertiser-supported online music service, dubbed "Rhapsody 25," along with several new wrinkles in the existing version of Rhapsody. The new service gives registered users 25 free plays a month from Rhapsody's online jukebox, and it lets them send songs to their friends.
"We now have this ability for anybody to get access to the jukebox in the sky, without having to be a [paying] subscriber," said Rob Glaser, chief executive of Seattle-based RealNetworks.
Rhapsody's updates, which also include more personalization and portability, are the latest moves by fledgling music services to popularize the idea of buying access to music rather than the songs themselves.
The market for music online has been dominated by Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes Music Store, which sells downloadable songs for 99 cents each. A smaller number of people have signed up for services such as Rhapsody, which enable users to hear an unlimited number of songs for a flat monthly fee.
Glaser claims that Real's premium online radio stations and Rhapsody are the nation's most popular subscription-based online music services, with more than 1 million subscribers between them. Yet Real's share, like that of other companies in the field, remains a tiny fraction of the number of people buying music -- or downloading bootleg copies for free from file-sharing networks like Kazaa.
Glaser noted that as many as 40 million people a month were downloading music from those networks, according to estimates by BigChampagne, a Los Angeles company that monitors file sharing. The key, he said, "is to take that energy and funnel that into the legitimate market."
Several industry analysts predict that the music-buying public ultimately will embrace subscription-based services, which offer unlimited listening for a flat monthly fee. But the route to public acceptance could be long and rocky because people are accustomed to buying music as a product and not a service, such as cable TV, said analyst P.J. McNealy of American Technology Research.
To attract more customers, some of Real's competitors have tried to make their offers seem more like owning music than renting it. Led by Napster Inc., they have introduced more expensive subscriptions that allow users to listen not only on their computers, but also on a handful of portable players.
Real is following suit, introducing a $15-a-month "Rhapsody To Go" aimed at music aficionados to go along with its non-portable $10-a-month service. But Glaser said the company's focus is on making Rhapsody more appealing to casual music fans -- and persuading more people to try a sample.
In addition to the 25 free songs, Rhapsody 25 allows users to listen to 25 of Rhapsody's online radio stations and send song playlists to their friends. Non-subscribers who receive a Rhapsody playlist can play the songs if they download the Rhapsody software and register for free.
Whether 25 free songs a month are enough to induce that remains to be seen; the average Rhapsody customer listens to nearly 10 times that many songs in an average month.