Napster They're Not

The music industry's online offerings hit more sour notes than sweet

When record companies sued Napster Inc. in 2000, the first casualty (after Napster itself, alas) was common sense. On one side of the debate were bug-ridden Napster imitators intent on abetting larceny of intellectual property. On the other was a no-growth music oligopoly that was late to the Internet--then insisted no music service go online without itself in charge. Choose your poison.

The solution is obvious: Web music services should be cheaper and more convenient than a store. They should pay artists and provide reliable downloads. They need every tune most people want and lots they don't yet know, like a good store has. Right?

So why don't pressplay and RealOne Music, two new industry-backed Web music services, understand this? A test drive reveals weak selection and pricing that's not attuned to how people want to buy music. Both flunked the same test Napster passed in 2000: Could they match my own, suburban-bought, CD collection? Hardly. RealOne couldn't find Beethoven's Ode to Joy. No Otis Redding. No zydeco titan Clifton Chenier. No Dar Williams or Richard Shindell, folk acts reviewed in haute couture magazines such as People. No Clancy Brothers, a top Irish band. How about Top 40? No Jennifer Lopez. No Alicia Keys.

REMEMBER THE NIXONS?

  Pressplay also has gaps big enough to march a band through. It has 19 Beethoven cuts--by 1980s band Camper Van Beethoven. It misses Chenier. It has the Clancy Brothers but not their sometime-partners, the Dubliners. No Shindell, but Williams is here. No Redding. It has Lopez-- but just two tracks from her J.Lo CD. No Keys. A search for *NSYNC yielded The Nixons--until I misspelled *NSYNC's name and found nine songs. Most *NSYNC is on RealOne.

The reason for the gaps is simple. On pressplay, there are mostly songs recorded for Sony (SNE ), EMI, and Universal (V ). RealOne is built around Warner Music, BMG, EMI, and Zomba. Selection will improve as licensing deals get cut, but now neither keeps up with the what's available on free song-sharing services such as Morpheus, which like Napster is battling the industry in court. And neither matches a good store's breadth of selection.

RealOne and pressplay aren't cheap, either. A CD is like an honest Chicago politician: It stays bought. Both pressplay and RealOne use rental pricing: For $9.95 and up per month, you can play songs you download on your PC, beginning at 30 per month at pressplay and 100 a month at RealOne. (But RealOne bars you from transferring songs to portable music players--a major faux pas.) For a year, pressplay costs $119 to use 360 songs--the equivalent of about 24 CDs (on RealOne, it's about 80 CDs).

To get most of the artists I want, I'd need both services, for about $240 a year. Since I keep CDs about 10 years, I'd spend $2,400 to keep listening for that long online. RealOne and pressplay, however, may make economic sense for some people. For those who buy a few cuts from a CD rather than the whole thing, or those who tend to listen to a song for a short time and then move on, these services may be priced right.

Otherwise, RealOne and pressplay serve record companies, not consumers. Britney Spears sums it up: Oops, they did it again.

By Timothy J. Mullaney

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