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Pressplay improves online music delivery, but it's far from perfect – Review

Pressplay (www.pressplay.com), the online music service launched Dec. 19, is an order of magnitude better than rival MusicNet (www.musicnet.com), which launched Dec. 4. The gap is so great that I don’t think MusicNet deserves to sign up a single additional subscriber without first undertaking a major overhaul to match pressplay.

Not that pressplay is perfect; the major record labels are still struggling to figure out how to sell their music online without opening the door to further piracy.

But pressplay succeeds at delivering all three components of the online music experience: “streaming,” where you listen to songs without putting them on your computer, “downloading,” where you transfer songs onto your computer’s hard disk, and “portability,” where you transfer music to audio CD or to MP3 players.

MusicNet only comes close to pressplay in streaming; MusicNet’s system for downloads is distinctly inferior, and MusicNet doesn’t offer any kind of portability.

Alert readers may recall that I was mildly positive about MusicNet in my Dec. 13 column. But that was before pressplay announced details of its service, so I’m allowed to revise my opinion.

By now, the background to online music should be familiar: The major record labels have declared war on rampant unauthorized swapping of digitized songs through the Internet, and won a major victory in mid-2001 with the shutdown of Napster. But swapping continues through a new generation of services, including Grokster, KaZaA and Morpheus.

The music industry is also fighting back by devising its own licensed online services. Warner Music, EMI and Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG), three of the Big Five labels, formed MusicNet. Sony and Vivendi Universal teamed up to create pressplay, and EMI is licensing its music to the service.

MusicNet is now selling its service through RealNetworks, creator of the Real media player. The RealOne Music service (www.real.com) costs $9.95 a month for 100 streams and 100 downloads. The streams you only hear once, as the music is sent to your computer from Real. The downloads you can play as many times as you want for 30 days, but you must use one of your 100 download credits in the following month if you want to hear the same track beyond 30 days.

Not only does pressplay provide far more streams, it has a far more liberal download policy. Downloads remain active as long as you maintain your pressplay account. In other words, if you sign up for Silver and grab the full 50 downloads a month, you’ll have 600 active songs on your hard disk in a year. With MusicNet, you’ll never have much more than 100 active tracks.

Pressplay also allows users to put their downloads on two computers, unlike MusicNet. Users can set up accounts on as many computers as they want for listening to streams.

Then there’s portability. If your computer has a CD-RW drive, you can record – or “burn” – most pressplay songs onto disc in standard CD audio format. You can then play the tracks in almost any CD player, and even take the simple extra step of “ripping” the tracks into MP3 format. These MP3 tracks can be moved into portable MP3 players, and can be easily – and legally – shared with a few friends.

Here’s how pressplay works:

You start at pressplay’s Web site, where you pick one of three pressplay resellers to handle your account: MSN Music, Roxio or Yahoo. You then sign-up for one of the monthly plans using a credit card, and download the pressplay software.

You’ll need a Windows PC; pressplay is not yet available for Macintosh. You’ll also likely need to update your Internet Explorer browser (www.microsoft.com/ie) and Windows Media Player software (www.windowsmedia.com/download), because pressplay requires the most current version of both. The upgrades are free, although the process can be time-consuming.

Once you’ve completed sign-up and installation, the pressplay program takes you to a home page listing the most popular songs and providing links to a search page, a library of the music you’ve already downloaded and message boards where pressplay subscribers chat among themselves.

You can sample pressplay for free; the service is offering a 14-day no-cost trial with 200 streams and 20 downloads. Also, there’s a teaser rate on the Silver plan: $9.95 a month for the first three months, after which you pay the full $14.95.

I had no problem setting up pressplay on my home desktop PC, a Dell Dimension running Windows 98 Second Edition. Through my cable modem Internet connection, the quality of streaming audio was excellent and downloads of most songs took less than a minute. The process of burning tracks on CD was simple, and the results sounded identical to store-bought CDs on my home stereo system.

However, I ran into several glitches installing pressplay on a loaner Hewlett-Packard Pavilion running Windows XP. I couldn’t get pressplay to stream or download at first, although the problem seemed to fix itself after several days, and the software couldn’t find the Pavilion’s CD-RW drive and therefore refused to burn tracks. Comments on the pressplay message board show I’m not the only one encountering XP obstacles.

I enjoyed a week of noodling with pressplay, after signing up for the Silver plan. The number of streams is so large – about 25 hours of music, assuming the average song runs three minutes – that I didn’t worry about pushing the counter down to zero. So I used the streaming feature as a kind of radio on demand service, selecting entire albums to play through my computer’s speakers as I worked on other tasks.

I also downloaded all eight tracks from the Steely Dan album “Countdown to Ecstasy,” a favorite from my college years. I burned two tracks to CD on the day I downloaded the album – the limit, since pressplay supposedly only allows two burns from any single artist during a month. Then, to my surprise, I was able to burn two more tracks from the album a few days later. I’m not sure if this is a flaw in pressplay’s security, or if the posted rules are stricter than what pressplay intends to allow.

I burned another downloaded song, “Cuban Crime of Passion” by Jimmy Buffet, and converted the audio CD track into MP3 using the Real player. I then e-mailed the track to my colleague Dawn Chmielewski, who is covering the upheavals in online music, and she had no trouble listening to the song on her computer.

For all the fun I had with pressplay, the service shares two huge deficits with MusicNet.

First, the storehouse of music available on pressplay isn’t very big – about 50,000 songs, a tiny fraction of what the three participating labels have produced over the years. MusicNet is similarly limited, with about 75,000 songs. Both services need to move quickly to add hundreds of thousands more songs from their back catalog, and to offer all of their new releases.

The labels also need to put their petty differences aside and cross-license. Warner and BMG should immediately make their catalog available to pressplay, while Sony and Vivendi Universal should immediately do the same with MusicNet. Otherwise, consumers will be left wondering which artists are available on which service.

Second, neither pressplay or MusicNet is worth considering without a high-speed Internet connection, such as a cable modem or DSL phone line. A standard dial-up phone connection is too slow, reducing the quality of streams and making the wait for downloads intolerable. Since the vast majority of home Internet users don’t yet have cable modems or DSL, the immediate market for pressplay and MusicNet remains small.

But, to paraphrase a hit song from the 1980s, pressplay’s future is so bright it’s gotta wear shades. If the service builds a comprehensive inventory, the monthly fees would be a bargain in providing both casual listening through streams and the opportunity to build a wide-ranging personal music library through downloads and burns.

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