It's not Napster, but Listen.com's Rhapsody subscription music service is adding features that relax some of its tight restrictions on what users can do with their digital tunes. Now, subscribers can burn some songs from the service onto CDs.
Listen.com has cut a deal with two of the five major record labels to allow CD burning. Rhapsody, which launched in December 2001, previously offered only streaming audio, meaning that users could listen to music only at their PCs. Now, users can take their music with them when they walk away from the computer.
"We've always planned on doing this. We've always wanted to allow people to take their music with them," says Matt Graves, a spokesperson for Listen.com. "Our first goal was to build up our catalog of music, and we did that by becoming the first service to sign deals with all five major record labels. Now, we're going back to those music labels and trying to get permission to offer CD burning."
Currently, the CD-burning features are available only with songs from Universal Music Group Inc. and Warner Brothers Music Group Inc. Of the 250,000 total songs in Rhapsody's database, about 75,000 of them are available for burning, Graves says. Listen.com's goal is to negotiate similar deals with the remaining major labels--EMI Group PLC, Sony Music Entertainment Inc., and BMG Entertainment Inc.--as well as with the numerous independent labels with which Listen.com has streaming deals.
"When you look at what people are doing with file-sharing, they're downloading songs. But they're not downloading them just to download. They're downloading them to burn to a CD. They want the ability to hear those songs away from their PC," Graves says.
While the addition of the CD-burning capability may suggest that the record labels are at long last relinquishing the tight control they have tried to exercise over digital music since Napster's heyday, that's not exactly the case. Rhapsody users are not allowed to download the songs onto their hard drives: The service uses built-in software to burn the track directly to a CD.
That means users can't distribute the tracks through peer-to-peer services or even burn them to more than one CD. It also means they can't add the track to an existing compilation CD they may have created using another CD burning program such as Roxio. Any CD burned under Rhapsody must contain only songs available through Rhapsody, and it has to be compiled in a single session--you can't add more songs later.
Paying the Price
The new capability carries a cost, too. The CD burning features are available to subscribers of Rhapsody's All Access service, which is the company's most popular plan, Graves says. For US$10 monthly, users can stream any songs in the company's library and can access its Internet radio features, known as RadioPlus. The price of CD burning is not included in that plan; each track costs 99 cents to burn. At that rate, burning an entire CD would cost almost as much as purchasing it from a retailer.
"It's apples and oranges. We're not trying to lure people away from stores," Graves says. "We're trying to offer a different experience, where users can come to Rhapsody and pick and choose songs that they want to hear."
Rhapsody is not the first music subscription service to offer CD burning. Both Pressplay and EMusic also support limited CD burning functions. Rhapsody's goal is to make the process seamless, by allowing the user to take advantage of its features without getting kicked to another application, Graves says. Rhapsody uses technology from NewTech Infosystems to offer the direct CD-burning capability, he says.
Graves admits that the new features are an effort to attract new users and to please current customers. But he disagrees with numerous reports that subscription music services are having a hard time gaining ground.
"People focus on the fact that millions of users haven't signed up for these services, but that's the wrong way to view the market," he says. "You can't compare it with free services that attract millions of users. Sure, you can get free digital music. But you'll also get the spyware and the adware that those services install on your computer."
"This is just the beginning of the market," Graves adds. "It's like cable TV in the 1970s. It was out there, but millions of people weren't signing up yet. That's the stage we're at. Don't write us off yet."