By Alex Salkever
Musically, I'm what you would call an old-school guy, albeit at the less-than-ripe age of 32. After college, I pretty much gave up on pop music and retreated into my shell of old blues and jazz, Robert Johnson and Coltrane (although I do confess a wicked predilection for early Run-DMC). Finding what I like on the radio is largely out of the question except at odd hours, in odd towns, and on college radio stations.
Finding what I like on the Internet is tricky to do legally: Pieces and fragments of my music can be found on various music Web sites, such as Emusic and Spinner -- but never all in one place. Of course, I could find them all on Napster. But Napster won't be free for long. And, if the record labels have their way, it won't be any fun, either.
So when MP3.com began offering a free service called My.MP3, I took note. The idea is to give legitimate owners of physical CDs the ability to access online versions of these albums from any Internet connection via MP3.com, the first music-download site to break into public consciousness back in 1997.
Here's how it works: Say I buy a copy of Eric Clapton's Unplugged at the record store, take it home, and log on to the My.MP3 homepage housed in the MP3.com Web site. I pop the Clapton album into the CD drive on my computer and download a small software program from My.MP3. That program reads the disk's contents and verifies that it is not a pirated CD.
Then My.MP3.com places a digital copy of the CD in an online music locker. There is no actual uploading from my home computer -- all the albums are stored in servers at MP3.com, and users are allowed to access them after proving that they own a commercial copy.
The system should have three clear benefits. First, it removes the need to translate music in CDA format -- the way it is stored on commercial CDs -- to the more compressed MP3 format, which is commonly used to put music online and for CD mixes created by individual music lovers on their home systems. Second, My.MP3 does allow users to access their music lockers anywhere they have an Internet connection. That means all the CDs you registered with My.MP3 at home can be listened to at the office by accessing your online music locker. There are no location constraints, since access to the locker is possible from any Web browser. This differs from Napster, where the music remains on a single hard drive and is accessible only from that specific computer. Third, My.MP3 makes it much easier to store entire albums on the Internet. Napster users generally download single songs because, in most cases, entire albums would take too long.
Of course, there are some drawbacks. You can't remove copyright-protected songs from your digital locker and e-mail them to friends (though you can share playlists). And not every commercially produced song or album is available on MyMP3.com. That's because the record labels have not allowed MP3.com to put everything up on the service.
SAVE THE WAILS.
Still, it sounded ideal for me. I would love to be able to hear obscure CDs by people like jazz sax maestro Coleman Hawkins at work. Fat chance finding his album Blues Wail in its entirety -- even on Napster. After the My.MP3 service cleared its legal hurdles and launched officially, I vowed to give it a spin. The results of my decidedly unscientific test drive? I was unable to get the system to work on six separate tries. I got error messages and waited for minutes for authentication processes that should have taken seconds. All told, it was a total washout.
Here's how it went down. I went to MP3.com and registered to create a free MyMP3 account, inputting an e-mail address, a password, and telling them about the speed of my Web connection, which is a high-speed DSL. After creating my account, I arrived at the "Welcome" page and surveyed the scene. It was a fairly intuitive and clean interface. And it was obvious that the button labeled "Add Your CDs" was where I wanted to go. I was asked if I wanted to use Beam-it inside my Web browser or download it to run externally (for Netscape users, that's the only way to make it work). Beam-it is MP3.com's trademarked software that verifies the CD sitting in a computer drive is actually a commercial copy of an album. I opted to try Beam-it first without exiting my Web browser (one option) and, a few seconds later, I got a clickable Beam-it button.
I popped my Dave Brubeck "Take Five" disk into the CD-ROM drive on my desktop and clicked "Beam-it" to set the process in motion. A promising graphic of a spinning CD appeared. The word "connecting" floated under it. I waited. And waited. And waited.
In the browser's status bar, the number of new items to verify rose from 2 to 8, then to well over 20. That seemed odd, as the disk has only seven tracks. I decided the system was taking its time and sat down to watch the news. Five minutes later, I strolled back to the computer. Beam-it still hadn't finished beaming. I walked across the street to get some milk.
When I arrived back after another five-minute absence, there was a red error message informing me that Beam-it had been unable to authenticate my CD. A little annoyed, I put in another disk, Love Over Gold by Dire Straits. This time Beam-it informed me that this disk was not currently available and that I could request that MP3.com put it into the system. MP3.com would e-mail me when this occurred. Fair enough. The company was probably struggling to get everything from every collection onto its servers. Alas, Beam-it failed to recognize nearly half of my selections. And they weren't totally obscure, either. Blues Wail is a jazz classic, for example, but Beam-it, obviously doesn't have the soul of a jazz aficionado.
Just to make sure the problem was not with my browser, I downloaded the stand-alone version of Beam-it, which connects directly to MyMP3.com over the Internet. Unfortunately, the stand-alone version was similarly useless. Defeated after a full hour of tinkering, I gave up with not a single new song stored in my brand-new My.MP3 account.
When I queried the company about my failure, they told me it could be one of three things. First, the CDs could have been damaged. That seemed unlikely since all play perfectly. Second, the CD-ROM drive might not have been accurate enough to sustain Beam-it. That is perhaps the most likely possibility. Third, the CD-ROM drive might not have been compatible with Beam-it.
Now, if my machine did have a serious problem, then my apologies to MP3.com. But my desktop is only two years old -- not exactly ancient. And the CD-ROM drive functions perfectly when playing CDs or transferring software programs to my hard drive. So if My.MP3 requires a new PC, or an almost new one, then that would exclude tens of thousands of computer users who don't feel the need to upgrade their PCs every 18 months.
My unfortunate conclusion: So far, My.MP3 is a great idea that falls down in the execution. That said, I'll certainly give it another try when I buy a new computer.
Salkever edits the technology channel of BusinessWeek Online from New York