Bye-Bye Record Store, Hello Web Music?

Portable MP3 players such as Diamond's Rio are already a hit. Tomorrow, who knows? Everything from living-room stereos to clock radios could be wired to play digital songs that we buy on the WebOf course, if you're oblivious to intellectual-property laws, the age of downloadable audio is in full swing. Tunes are flying off the Web as fast as pirated Britney Spears tapes off a street vendor's table. Consider the ingenious but questionable Napster, which lets its users swap MP3 music files across the Net with point-and-click ease--copyrights be damned. Already an institution on college campuses everywhere, Napster is the target of a lawsuit by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Me, if I can find my kind of music on the Internet, I'm more than happy to pay for it. (Hey, Iggy Pop needs to eat, too.) But I will not be bestowing my compact discs on the Salvation Army anytime soon.

Elvis Is Missing

With more than 250,000 downloadable songs--all legal, all free-- MP3.com seemed like a logical spot to begin a virtual-music shopping excursion. However, precious few of its tracks are by musical superstars or even semi-well-known artists; not a problem for the acoustically adventurous, but vexing if (like me) you like your music comfortably familiar.

So I moved on to Listen.com, a site bankrolled in part by that arbiter of musical fashion, Madonna. This nifty search engine for MP3s (and competing formats, such as Liquid Audio) links only to aboveboard stuff, with lots of tracks by name-brand performers. True, the selection is hit-or-miss--sometimes bizarrely so. You can download 384 songs by Miles Davis but zero by Wynton Marsalis; there's music by the Animals, Byrds, and Eagles but not by the Beatles, Monkees, or Turtles. And there are multiple tracks by the Chairman of the Board but nary a one by the King or the Boss.

Many of the music files that Listen.com links to are free downloads. Others, however, cost around a buck apiece at such sites as Musicmaker.com and EMusic. How smoothly, you might ask, goes the download process? My purchases at EMusic (a couple of Herman's Hermits ditties) went off without a hitch. Over at Musicmaker, though, I paid good money for Marlene Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again," and all I got was an unplayable 28-byte file. I'm not sure what went wrong; Musicmaker customer service ignored my e-mails.

From CD to Web

For the time being, I guess I'll meet the Web music revolution halfway. I'll put my archaic compact disc collection online--courtesy of a (mostly) cool MP3.com feature known as My.MP3.com. What makes it work is a free software download called Beam-It. Stick a CD in your PC's CD-ROM drive, and Beam-It adds its contents to a personal music library that you can listen to anywhere you've got a Net connection. The process takes seconds per CD. Rather than actually copying the disc, Beam-It unlocks a replica that's already stored on MP3.com's servers. Of the 40 CDs I've tried to have replicated so far, around 90 percent were available. (Among the missing: a Carole King disc and the Great Muppet Caper soundtrack.) At its best, My.MP3.com's Hi Fi mode comes close to CD quality, at least to my non-audiophile ears. But it devours bandwidth, so songs tend to sputter. (Even my cable modem has trouble keeping up.) The less glitch-prone Lo Fi mode has a tinny, AM radio­like sound but still makes for pleasant background noise.

As with Napster, the music industry has its knickers in a twist over My.MP3.com. Already, the RIAA is suing--despite the fact that the service aims to give you access to songs you paid for on CD. And you can't e-mail bootlegs to your buddies, since music is delivered as streaming audio that can't be saved to a hard drive.

My take: Beam-It fans need feel no more guilty than folks who bought VCRs back when Hollywood tried to outlaw that emerging technology. And I'm sure the knotty legal issues surrounding online music will get untangled. Maybe even soon, given the America Online­Time Warner merger that will make AOL one of the biggest music publishers on earth.

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