MusicNet on AOL tunes up again

America Online Inc. hopes to strike a chord with its members Wednesday with the launch of MusicNet on AOL, its first music subscription service. MusicNet on AOL will be a premium service, offering the ability to hear, download, and make CDs of music from major labels at a cost of US$4 to US$18 monthly.

With the introduction of the premium service, AOL hopes to boost its bottom line and offer a viable alternative to illegal file-sharing services that infringe on music copyrights.

The release of MusicNet on AOL coincides with MusicNet's launch of its MusicNet 2.0 service upgrade. MusicNet is a joint venture of RealNetworks, Warner Music Group, BMG, EMI, and independent label Zomba Music. New in MusicNet 2.0 are CD-burning functions and a leap in the song catalog from 75,000 to 250,000 entries.

Earlier versions of MusicNet were criticized for its limited catalog and use restrictions. Music subscription services that offer downloadable music and streaming audio have attracted only about 300,000 paying customers, according to Jupiter Research.

Are New Options Enough?

MusicNet on AOL subscriptions range in price, based on the quantity and capabilities. For US$4 monthly, you can download and stream up to 20 tunes. For US$9, you get unlimited downloading and streaming, while US$18 monthly, will get you unlimited streaming and downloading, plus the capability to burn ten tracks monthly onto a CD-RW disc. Digital tracks are copy-protected using RealNetworks digital rights management technology.

Audio downloads no longer expire every 30 days, as they did with MusicNet 1.0. Now, tracks accumulate and and music libraries remain available as long as you remain an AOL member. MusicNet 2.0 also lets you download songs onto multiple PCs, instead of restricting downloads to one PC. But restrictions remain: From a third PC, you can listen to streaming audio but cannot download the songs.

Still, the service will probably not appeal to freeloaders accustomed to getting music from peer-to-peer services like Kazaa, says Lee Black, Jupiter Research senior analyst. It may attract discerning PC users who are interested in a well-organized and broad catalog of music that is virus-free and easy to download.

"This is a really great first step," says Chamath Palihapitiya, executive director of product strategy for AOL Entertainment Group. "MusicNet on AOL is only going to get better." The music catalog will reach 300,000 by May, he says. AOL will boost the music selection with exclusive content from AOL's Sessions@AOL music destination.

Listen Up: The Test

An informal review of MusicNet on AOL finds a vast improvement over an earlier test. However, a few technical difficulties and limitations remain, which had us singing the blues.

MusicNet on AOL lets you search by artist, album, song, and music style. Unless you buy the highest level of membership, you can only listen to high-quality streaming versions of songs without downloading them, or download copy-protected versions of songs that can't be burned onto a CD or transferred to a portable device. Only if you pay the US$18 monthly rate can you burn files, and then only up to ten each month--and some songs in the collection cannot be burned onto CD at all.

As for selection, MusicNet on AOL makes great strides over earlier versions of MusicNet, such as the one offered by RealNetworks. But MusicNet on AOL still cannot compete with the range of the free-for-all peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.

At MusicNet on AOL, you can download the entire Grammy-winning Norah Jones CD Come Away with Me in under 15 minutes. Other artists represented range from Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen to Miles Davis and and Luciano Pavarotti. Most of their songs are available for burning.

But you won't be able to Soak up the Sun with Sheryl Crow or Get the Party Started with Pink. Still too many big acts are absent from the catalog. You won't find a single song from the Grateful Dead, Beatles, or Dave Matthews because the record labels won't allow it.

Still Off-Key

One MusicNet minus was a technical snag on a Windows XP Pro system that crippled downloads and streaming playback. A documented conflict with a recent Windows Service Pack update cause some PCs, like a Dell Dimension test unit, to deliver a cryptic "internal TLC error." MusicNet worked better on a different PC running Windows XP Pro, and also a Windows 98 PC.

Another negative is that you can play music only through the MusicNet on AOL application. Despite its simple and functional user interface, MusicNet lacks slick intuitive features of excellent audio players like Musicmatch and Winamp.

AOL members can test the service for 30 days free of charge by entering the Keyword MusicNet. This spring, AOL will add a fourth pricing tier to let you burn five songs to CD for $13.95 monthly, along with unlimited downloads and streaming. Later this year, another pay plan will let you burn individual song tracks.

Fees and services may be fluid in all the music sites, because plenty of competition is tuning up.

Competing online music service Rhapsody, which has deals with the big record labels, recently began letting customers burn songs onto a CD for 49 cents per track. It supplies its services to several music sites, including Listen.com.

Pressplay, another music service owned by the record labels, prices its services comparably to MusicNet. It also limits the number of burns as well as charging US$1 extra per song. Yahoo has also launched a music subscription service, which is free of charge to subscribers of its broadband partners.

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