I have had some days now to look at the respective technologies for online music. It seems that the labels are doing their best to make the pay versions of online music much more difficult than the "free" versions. Let's look at what made the file swapping programs popular (excluding, of course, getting something for nothing).
- Exploring — This deals with the issue that radio has done a lousy job of exploring new music (even so-called alternative stations). Even in large urban areas, radio is a vast wasteland of bland uniformity. Napster allowed for people to explore new music easily.
There is a very key difference between copyrights for broadcasting versus actual copies. A copyright holder cannot withhold the broadcast of their material if the broadcaster abides by the statutory license payments. This license is also more artist-friendly and less label-friendly on who receives the royalties.
With the new Napster many of the really new tracks are buy-only. Thus, only 30-second clips are available for streaming. This restricts the ability of exploring new music. This is not Roxio's fault. Rather, it is the music labels trying to restrict things. Napster also does not give information on music that is not yet available. Apple Music Store has no streaming whatsoever. MusicMatch to the rescue. Here they have their radio-based model for streaming. Brand new stuff is available for streaming. The only restriction is — like radio — you cannot pick the exact music you will be getting. You can specify down to the granularity of an individual artist, however. If the track or album is available for purchase, you can click on the buy-track button or add a song to your wish list. In addition to this, their music guide is far better than the other two. They include music that they don't have yet available. On the negative side, they removed the Buy-CD with Buy-Track button. There is really no need for this either/or approach. Some people would prefer a CD over electronic tracks. Hopefully, they will bring the old button back.
- Availability — People want to play their music on their equipment. For playing on your computer, this is mostly solved (at least for PC owners). It appears that the labels will be providing music at least for purchase in some form. It may get expensive. In one case I noted that to purchase an album through Napster would be twice as expensive as buying the CD. MusicMatch and Apple Music Store both provide more comprehensive album purchasing selections. My guess is the price issue will be a temporary problem on Napster.
Playing on portables is a different story. As I commented earlier, there are two major formats for protected music. Apple Music Store seems locked into AAC while Napster seems locked into WMA. Again, MusicMatch to the rescue. Their CEO has been publically quoted as saying that they will look at supporting AAC format. Hopefully, this will include transcoding between formats. Their vision is being a universal player. Even without this support, they are coming real close. The only issue right now is they have the smallest library of the three majors. This will undoubtably be fixed in the next couple of months.
As you can see I am a big MusicMatch fan. In a sea of black hats they seem to be the only white hat out their. Add to that their new relationship with Dell for driving Dell's new portable. They may make the online music business work despite the ongoing stupidity of the labels.