Money for nothing



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1 April 2005 | 0

Usually, things on the Internet change quickly. Really, really quickly – most of the time. Not so in the world of online music, though — at least not lately.

It’s over 18 months since the notorious Napster trial, and over a year since the major record companies announced their plans to develop a subscription-based download/streaming service of their own.

Yet only now are we finally seeing any evidence of this: Real Networks (best known for their Real Player and Real Jukebox software) recently launched RealOne, a subscription-based service that lets you access up to 100 tracks a month for $9.95. So was it worth the wait?




Well, no, in this writer’s opinion.

First, a bit of background. RealOne is the first of several planned schemes all based on copyright protection and digital watermarking systems developed by MusicNet, a joint venture from three of the big five record labels (Warner, Bertelsmann and EMI). MusicNet’s aim is to make the back catalogues of these, their subsidiary labels and several of the larger independents (Arista, Capitol, Elektra, Jive, RCA, Virgin, Zomba, etc) available for purchase online in a ‘secure’ digital format, ie, one that cannot be copied and redistributed at will. 

Their long-term aim is to eventually join forces with the other two major label groups (Universal and Sony). 

Napster, too, plans to offer a MusicNet-based subscription service in the near future. For now, though, Real Networks has beaten them to the marketplace: their RealOne system went ‘live’ on December 4th. As mentioned previously, this allows you to download up to 100 tracks per month; a ‘Gold’ membership also lets you watch streaming video content from a host of providers such as ABC and CNN.

At the moment, RealOne is only available to US residents, so we weren’t able to give it a full test-drive just yet. However, early press reports and user feedback (as found on various Web discussion boards) aren’t good. Just some of the problems and gripes mentioned include: technical ‘glitches’ that render the system in-operative for hours at a time; broken links; slow download times; and a lack of content (the much-touted 75,000 songs might seem like a lot, but the database of Napster at its peak, for instance, held over ten times that many). Then there’s the fact that you can only listen to your music on the computer you signed up on: you can’t download tracks to a portable MP3 player, for instance (even though the supplied RealOne player software does let you record MP3 tracks from your own CDs and download them to your player). 

But the biggest problem of all is that you don’t actually get to keep the music you download. Sure, you have the option of downloading it to your desktop or having it streamed to you on-demand, but downloaded tracks will expire after 30 days and you won’t be able to play them after that. You can ‘renew’ tracks, but each renewal will be taken out of your 100-track allowance that month.

So, hang on: what they’re saying is, they want your money to not actually give you anything? That’s about the size of it. The idea is that many people used to use services like Napster to ‘test-listen’ to music before buying a CD, and that this is a way of letting them do that without the artist losing revenues. It’s also based on the Hollywood financial model, whereby you charge people to access new films (in the cinema) before making them available to purchase (on VHS or DVD).

The difference is, though, that people are willing to pay to go to the cinema because they know they’ll get the full-on immersive theatre experience: better sound, a bigger screen and so on. It’s better than watching a video, in other words. Whereas with any form of downloadable music, you’re always going to be faced with a loss of quality. It’s arguably only a minor loss, but while people were willing to put up with a bit of snap, crackle and pop on tracks they’d grabbed off Napster, will they feel the same when it’s on a track that they’ve just forked out ten dollars for, just for the privilege of having it on their computer for 30 days? I hope not. 

RealOne, as far as I can see, may not represent great value for money and may be greeted by mass indifference on the part of the music-loving public. Perhaps then record companies will realise they can’t have our money for nothing — or indeed our clicks for free.

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