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All the Music You Can Eat: Music Subscription Services

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There's a new (legal) way to download music. Through technology licensed from Microsoft, you can rent music and listen to millions of tunes for only a few bucks each month. Matthew David walks you through the subscription services and the pros and cons of renting your songs.
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Unless you have been asleep, you have witnessed the massive explosion in legally owned digital music. Apple's iTunes has dominated this landscape with its iTunes Store. The whole premise of the iTunes Store is that you pay 99 cents for a track, you download it, and own it for life. Do what you like with the track once you have it (burn it to a CD, stick in on your iPod, or listen to it on your computer). But there is a rumble in the jungle and it is coming from that 800-pound gorilla called Microsoft. Microsoft, through its Janus initiative, doesn't want you to own the music; it wants you to rent the music.

In this article you will find out how you can rent your music, how it affects your music listening style, and how you get the tracks you want.

Renting Music

Renting music is something new. Really new. For decades, we have all gotten used to the idea that if we want our music we either buy it from store or, more recently, we buy the album and download it through online music stores. We have been indoctrinated to buy music. Why would you want to just rent your music like you rent a movie?

In reality, however, how many of us have albums that we never listen to? Or, worst yet, paid $15 for one, only to listen to it once and throw it away—disgusted that we parted with our cash? (I'm going to annoy a lot of fans here, but I felt that way with the third album from Tracy Chapman.) Wouldn't it be cool to rent the album for pennies on the dollar to give it a test run? That time has come.

The world of computers and always-on access has allowed for some changes.

Renting music began back in '99 with a tool called Spinner. Any of you diehards out there used it? It was very cool—it was a small application that you installed on your desktop. The tool accessed continuous streaming music channels, such as a country or an alternative music channel. The default tool was free but would only allow for poor-quality audio to stream (I was broke at the time, so that poor quality had to do). However, you could pay to upgrade the system and receive channels broadcast at CD-quality sound. In many ways this was the first music you could rent over the Internet.

Companyies such as Yahoo! and MusicMatch also began similar programs. Interestingly, Yahoo! has recently purchased MusicMatch. The big difference with Yahoo! and MusicMatch is that you can listen to entire albums of music. All you are paying is a small monthly fee. If you listen to only one album a day (you can do this as you work and listen to Yanni in the background), the equivalent cost of renting music to owning a CD is a mere fraction.

The only downside to these tools is not the range of music or the quality, but the connectivity. You cannot download the music and share it to other devices. The tracks live through the connection you have to your Internet. That brings up an additional problem. What if you lose your connection to the Internet? It is bye-bye, birdie!

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