|Are for-pay music services worth your dime? |
Why pay for digital music when there are so many free tunes on the Web? Executive Editor John Morris looks for the answer as he test-drives two new pay-to-play services.
By John Morris
Executive editor, CNET Hardware and Software
Two competing services are leading the charge: Pressplay and RealNetworks' RealOne MusicPass. Based on some of the current limitations, I doubted that many people would willingly pay a monthly fee for something available free on the Internet--free, at least, to those who know where to look. Then again, who would have thought the WWF would drive the American public to pay for TV? So I decided to try these services for myself.
|Now, even digital music, until recently the Wild West of the Web, is slouching toward subscriptions.|
Although they're rivals, these two services don't match up exactly head-to-head. Pressplay seems intent on duplicating as much as possible the digital music experience on a PC à la Napster, including CD burning. The service is distributed through four affiliates: MSN, MP3.com, Roxio, and Yahoo. (I tested the Roxio version.) RealOne MusicPass's features, built on the MusicNet service, are more limited. But the music service is only one aspect of a broader package that includes a browser for both audio and video programming, a platform that RealNetworks is busily pushing onto mobile phones, handhelds, set-top boxes, MP3 players, DVD players, and bread machines. (OK, I made that last one up, but you get the point.)
A lot has been written about these services' catalogs, so I won't waste much time on the subject. Suffice it to say, you'll get artists only on labels with which the services have deals. Pressplay has EMI, Sony, and Universal; MusicNet (RealOne) has BMG, EMI, and Warner. Both also have smaller labels. Both let you search for specific artists or songs or browse through the catalogs by genre. Pressplay adds a few wrinkles, such as the ability to browse by popularity and sift through playlists by moods from Angry to Upbeat. Once you find a song you want, you can listen to a streaming clip or download it to a media library, where you can create playlists.
At this point, I started to run into some real limitations. First, you get only a certain number of streams and downloads, depending on your monthly plan. Pressplay has four plans ranging from $10 to $25 a month; I tested the $19.95 Gold Plan that included 750 streams and 75 downloads. RealOne has only one music plan ($9.95 for 100 streams and 100 downloads), but offers video programming and other features such as commercial-free radio separately. Or you can get both with the $19.95 SuperPass Gold plan I tested that tacks on an extra 25 streams and downloads.
Yours to keep--for a while
Pressplay has the edge here, because it gives you far more streams as well as 30 seconds of playing time before it deducts a stream from your account, so you can try before you buy. (Real says it's adding this feature.) Even better, you can keep songs downloaded from Pressplay for as long as you remain a subscriber. RealOne Music, on the other hand, repossesses songs every 30 days unless you specifically ask to keep them, in which case, they count toward the next month's downloads, too--a policy that has earned it loads of criticism. In reality, this repossession policy is less onerous than it sounds, because even inactive tracks remain in your media library and are automatically reactivated when you play them. In addition, each track is good for 30 days from when you first download it, so at any given time, it's possible to have well over a hundred active MusicPass songs. But just try explaining all this to the average subscriber.
Then there's the problem of what to do with the tracks once you have them. Neither service yet supports portable MP3 players--a major drawback. Pressplay includes a Roxio plug-in that lets you burn CDs, but it's pretty limited. Not all tracks are burnable, you can't include more than two tracks from a single artist, and I burned through my 15 songs per month on a single CD. RealOne can burn CDs, but not with tracks downloaded using MusicPass.
|Neither service yet supports portable MP3 players--a major drawback.|
What RealOne lacks as a subscription music service, it makes up for in other areas, though. First, it includes just about all of the digital-audio features of RealPlayer and RealJukebox, making it arguably the most powerful digital-audio dashboard for the PC. Second, the video programming is intriguing. With the exception of the all-Anna, all-the-time channel, much of the video content from ABCNews.com, CNN, E Networks, and FoxSports.com is available on the Web free, and the way it is integrated into the browser works well once you get used to it. Picture CNN Headline News on your PC. I quickly found myself browsing more and more in RealOne rather than in Internet Explorer, which I suspect would be music to Rob Glaser's ears.
If you're just looking for a particular song, file-sharing services such as Audiogalaxy, BearShare, Grokster, LimeWire, and Morpheus are still the fastest, easiest, and, of course, cheapest way to go--ignoring the significant copyright issues, which I'll leave to my colleague over at MP3 Insider. But Pressplay is far more polished than any of these, and it currently offers the most complete, flexible experience for those who want to browse through lists of artists, sample songs, and purchase downloadable music. RealOne still has much more work to do as a music service, but it makes Web browsing a whole lot more entertaining and provides a glimpse of what the Web, not to mention TV, may look like in a few years. Best of all, I can listen to my Yankee games, courtesy of RealOne and MLB.com.