2002 will be the year when online music distribution -- at least the kind that makes record labels happy and doesn't encourage lawsuits -- either becomes a reality or returns to fantasy. With Napster long out of the way and major underground alternatives like Gnutella and Morpheus in the sights of major labels and their lawyers, a handful of legitimate companies are hoping to offer music online via services that make sure artists are paid for their work.
At the end of 2001, the first two systems launched. MusicNet (www.musicnet.com) is backed by the Warner, EMI and BMG labels and was first out of the gate, followed almost immediately by Sony and Universal's Pressplay service (www.pressplay.com).
In coming months, further services including the Peter Gabriel-sponsored Web Audio Net (www.webaudionet.com) will be vying for the attention and cash of online music fans. Judging by the major labels' early footsteps into online distribution, though, they've got their work cut out for them.
MusicNet offers some 75,000 songs from the three major-label catalogues and their affiliates. The service is offered through the RealOne network for $10 U.S. per month. Customers are allotted a certain number of downloads per month, but the songs are kept on your machine, unburnable onto CDs and unplayable on portable MP3 players.
Pressplay is only slightly more flexible. The service also has access to its two major-label catalogues and their various sub-imprints, but has a flexible subscription offer, ranging from $10 to $25 U.S. per month. You can burn tracks to CD, but only a certain number per month, and only two per artist. Those hoping to pay online for a complete burn of Jay-Z's The Blueprint album are out of luck.
So far, the reaction to these services has been lukewarm. The systems market themselves more as online radio stations where you get to create the playlist than as the global music jukebox Napster was.
And that, crucially, is why both of these services seem destined to fail. There are a number of things about the classic Napster experience that the creators of Pressplay and MusicNet don't seem to understand. Certain music fans will be thrilled by the idea of going online and paying for the eight Alicia Keys songs they like from her album rather than shelling out for the full disc.
Those folks might love the painfully limited selection of music offered online by the major labels, but chances are they aren't the people who made Napster so massive in the first place.
What made the original Napster, and what continues to make substitutes like Morpheus, such a hit is the free-form nature of the beast. Read something in the paper about the excellent French electro-tango group Gotan Project? You could log onto Napster and check out a few tracks before you splashed down $30 for the import CD.
Napster lived and thrived on its users' diversity and eagerness to take risks, qualities that don't compute in the major-label world. The breadth of material available on Napster at its prime was mind-melting, everything from the major-label favourites to Cambodian psychedelic music, homemade remixes of Britney Spears-meets-Eminem, advance copies of records, Simpsons clips and live bootlegs.
It truly was like the biggest jukebox in the world. The difference between that and the 75,000 songs that the major labels want you to hear and buy is insulting.
Most Napster users would have paid to keep on using that anarchic system, if only for the freedom and scope it offered.
"Forget that old experience," the major labels keep telling us. "This is the future of online music."
Not likely. firstname.lastname@example.org