Back when MP3 music files became prevalent, and Napster was zipping them across the Internet for anyone who was interested, the music industry got scared. Here was something truly subversive, and the digital revolution threatened to take away a lot of consumer spending. The fears were well-founded, it turns out. CD sales have dropped considerably recently, driving the music industry to explore methods of distributing their wares online - and collecting payment for them.
This spring, Apple became the first to put forth a major model for the new music economy - its iTunes service (www.apple.com). Browsing through Apple's library of more than 200,000 songs is free, and those who own a Mac can burn them on CDs and/or listen to them at their leisure (at their desk or on the R2D2-ish iPods), all for 99 cents a song, or $9.99 an album. The bad news is that first, at least for now, it's only official for Macintosh users: No supported Windows version is due until the end of the year. But worse news, at least for Apple, is that iTunes' convenient, inexpensive business model got major competition just a few weeks after hitting the Ethernet. Rhapsody (www.real.com), just started offering people a free trial for their standard $9.99 per month service, which lets you listen to their complete library of songs as often as you want, and charges you 79 cents for each song you download and burn on CD. And it's PC-compatible.
And that's where this battle will be won or lost - on the tools of the consumers. After iTunes officially hits the PC market, it will be tapping into a much broader audience. However, consumers will have to pay song by song, and listen on $300+ players or their Macs unless they want to burn a CD. Rhapsody, which allows subscribers unlimited access to listen to their entire collection, in any order that they decide (the same is true of iTunes), isn't compatible with any audio players unless the songs are burned onto a CD and converted to digital files again.
Sadly, both options - iTunes and Rhapsody - support the same old music industry doing the same old stuff in a new way. Far from shaking up the status quo, the services are merely couriers for it. Forget the revolution. It's enough to make you want to download a Dead Kennedys album onto your iPod to see if it blows up.
Publication date: 06/05/03