MusicNet and Duet: downloads expire after 30 days

By Richard Menta - 5/17/01

Last year I downloaded the music of an artist from Amazon's download section. It was only available in the Liquid Audio format and while I prefer MP3s I had the proper player and took it anyway. It was a good tune, unavailable on the CD, and I found myself listening to it frequently. I liked it so much I purchased the CD from Amazon a few weeks later.

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Like all good albums I listened to it regularly at first, walked away from it for a while, and then revisited it. I hadn't listened to that Liquid Audio track for several months and was compelled to hear it again after spinning the CD the night before. So I opened my Liquid Audio player that had gathered dust for a few months and selected several tracks, the first of which was the above song.

I hit play. A warning message popped up.

"This preview track has expired and can no longer be played"

What?!? What do they mean expired? I bought the CD!

Have other songs expired? I jumped to the next track and got same error message. I advanced to another one and again got the error message. Every Liquid Audio track I downloaded except one had expired. I was furious.

Now let me point out that this was not Rich Menta the digital music columnist who was reacting badly to this little event. He knows better and expects such elements to exist in a mercurial Net music world where every new innovation is followed by litigation. No, this was Rich Menta the consumer and music fan, someone who in his disappointment briefly forgot all about the other Rich Menta. He also forgot that he originally downloaded these tracks simply to sample music for purchase consideration.

"Who the hell are they to make MY music expire" said consumer Rich Menta in a very possessive tone. It took a few minutes before digital music columnist Rich Menta entered to remind consumer Rich Menta of the reality of life. Consumer Rich Menta felt no better even though he now knew better.

End result? Consumer Rich Menta removed the tracks and the Liquid Audio player from his system. Technically it did serve his need, in this case to sample new music, but it didn't satisfy him. I wonder how many other Liquid Audio users have had this experience and suffered the same reation?

The point here is this; a product, any product, needs to satisfy the buyer. A car can satisfy an owner's need to get back and forth to work, but if it is under powered, unreliable or just darn ugly it can still leave the owner unsatisfied. An unsatisfied owner is not motivated buy that product line again.

MusicNet and Duet

This week, Congress invited two industry sanctioned Napster clones - RealNetwork's joint venture with Bertelsmann , AOL/Time Warner, and the EMI Group called MusicNet and the Universal/Sony offering Duet - to demonstrate their products at their third set of hearings over online music. Both services are due to premier this summer. Napster was not invited.

What is interesting about these two upcoming services is an element that they share. This element was accurately described by the NY Times in a recent article Congress Getting a Preview of Online Music Service:

When a user downloads a song, it remains available for 30 days at which point the user can decide to renew the license for 30 more days, as long as the monthly fee is paid again. For the moment, songs cannot be copied to a portable music player, or purchased for permanent use… a typical $10 monthly subscription might include the ability to download or listen to 75 songs.

Translation, as a user I am no longer buying the music I listen to, I am only renting it. I am subject to continual charges every month and I pay for a song even if I don't listen to it for months. Yes, I can delete songs from my hard drive to avoid charges and reload them at a later date when I want to listen to them, but that is quite inconvenient, especially if I use a 56.6 modem to download with. If I don't pay again and again, the music expires.

Let's see, with Napster I download music for free and get to keep it. If I download free MP3 files from Amazon I get to keep it. If I download free Liquid Audio files from Amazon, they expire after a given time, but it was free.

If I pay to download tunes from MusicNet or Duet it will expire unless I pay again. If I keep the same 75 songs (about 6 CD's worth) on my hard drive for a year, that is $120.00 or $20 a CD. If I want to continue holding those same tunes for an additional year each CD now costs me $40.00 - and I still don't own the music. I can see how this can be attractive to the record labels.

Assessing multiple charges for the same music is something the music industry loves because a pay-per-play scenario simply makes them more money. It was not a practical application for the analog world, but online it is technically feasible and the record labels are ready to impose that model on the populace. MusicNet and Duet are pay-per-play models. They are also a sucker deal.

So the question is, will a pay-for-play model satisfy the buyer? Those Liquid Audio tunes pissed me off and they were free. The truth is I wasn't really thrilled with many of those tunes I downloaded. They were intentionally chosen from artists unknown to me to feed my eclectic tastes by exploring new music. Not every song can be a winner. Still, I want to be the one who decides when those tracks expire by deleting them. That I chose not to delete this music yet was an effort by myself to remain open minded about these songs, reserving the right to revisit and reevaluate them in the hopes I missed something. I never got to reevaluate that music when I attempted to. I was therefore never compelled to further explore it.

How many Napster users - consumers taught by experience to view digital music as a free product like radio and music videos - will want to plunk down their hard-earned money for the privilege to download music files designed to evaporate? I can only speculate and it doesn't look good, yet this is the very audience Duet and MusicNet expect to turn to their services.

Do MusicNet and Duet have a right to put an expiration date on a product? The answer is yes. Do I have the choice as a consumer to bypass a product because its term aren't good enough? That answer is also yes.

Just like any other business, MusicNet and Duet must give compelling reasons for consumers to use their services. Just saying ours is legal and theirs isn't is not enough, especially since 78% of music downloaders in the recent Pew study don't think they are stealing. If consumers are not compelled they won't buy and will choose to eschew these services for others just like they avoided DVD models with Divx.

DVD users had a choice, there were plenty of players that did not have Divx. Consumers also have a choice with the P2P software they use like Morpheus, Gnutella, Aimster, FreeNet and Napster itself if it survives. The record industry would love to put these competitors out of business and eliminate that consumer choice. It is easier for them to dictate the rules if they are the only game in town. Right now they are not the only game in town.

That said, Duet and MusicNet better have a lot more under their sleeves come summer.


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