- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2001

Slowly, tremulously perhaps, digital music is finding its sea legs. Tossed on the waves of copyright protection, copyright infringement (or so Napster was called) and the vagaries of the courts, the seemingly simple notion of being able to upload or download songs and the like has become a rather complicated business.

Right now, for $5 per month, you can sign up for an Internet-based radio service that'll stream your kind of music, and your mix of music, right to your PC (and, perhaps to other audio devices in the home). In this context, I'm reminded of an appearance by comedian Richard Jeni at the Improv on K Street many years ago, and his bit about ending a relationship only to turn on the radio and hear "love songs, nothing but sweet, sappy, disgusting love songs." But I digress.

The service is called MusicMatch Radio MX, and while only a true misanthrope or sadist might want to adjust the settings to provide 24 hours of, say, Wayne Newton or Bobby Vinton (to cite two extreme examples), the way it was demonstrated at the Jupiter Media Metrix "Plug In" conference offered some tantalizing possibilities.

For example, users of MusicMatch's existing player and online radio service (details at www.musicmatch.com) can get a variety of channels, including classical, country, jazz and, my favorite for some parts of the day, world music. The basic channel, free of charge, includes banner ads on the MusicMatch player display and occasional streaming audio ads. The world beat sounds run the gamut of Cuban, African, Celtic and Latin sounds, with the occasional Arabic or Hebrew melody thrown in.

All are fine and good I enjoy these when I'm pounding away at the keyboard. But if I feel like more Cuban and less Celtic (or vice versa), what can I do? For the aforementioned $5 per month, you can fine tune the mix on any of the channels for maximum plays of Arturo Sandoval or Tito Puente, or The Clancy Brothers, for that matter. The commercials are gone and the sound comes through in 128-bit splendor, which is equal to an audio CD.

Now, you can't (yet) download the songs and burn your own CD with this service, but that, too, is in prospect. A Seattle-based venture, MusicNet, plans to offer legal, downloadable music from three major record companies by the end of this year via firms such as AOL, RealNetworks and Napster, the latter signing on last June 5.

MusicNet describes itself as "the world's first legal, major label digital distribution platform for streaming and downloading music." It combines RealNetworks' Internet media delivery technology with the music catalogs of Warner Music Group, Bertelsmann AG, and EMI Recorded Music.

At a news conference here, Rob Glaser, chairman of Real Networks and interim CEO of MusicNet, said consumers might pay, perhaps, $9.95 per month to download 50 tracks and listen to 50 live streams of recorded music per month. Digital signatures will make sure the music is paid for, something not envisioned under the original Napster. It was that lack of payment that got the music industry all riled up in the first place.

So, while the music may no longer be free, it might be reasonably priced. How much it will cost to create a "permanent" CD of a given download is another issue; the details are still being worked out. But the potential for peace between Internet music lovers and the record companies could mean another way for you to get the songs you want, without a trip to the corner store.

It's also an open question whether the MusicNet deal is too little, and comes too late, to stem the tide of file-sharing services that have arisen in the wake of Napster's legal woes. While worldwide Napster usage dropped a precipitous 65 percent between February and June, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, other services have arisen to take up the slack.

In May 2001, six file-sharing applications other than Napster appeared in the Media Metrix U.S. reports, up from five in March 2001 and just one in January. Bodetella, a client designed for the Gnutella network, held steady at around 1 million unique users between January and May. Audiogalaxy, the second most popular file-sharing application, had 978,000 unique visitors in May, up 78 percent from March, the first month it was reportable. Next was Imesh with 474,000 unique visitors, up 11 percent from April, its first reportable month.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to MarkKel@aol.com, or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live to Mark every Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m. Eastern time, on www.adrenaline-radio.com.

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