Bye-Bye Record Store, Hello Web Music?

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Throughout a lifelong music addiction, I've poured money into an unending parade of audio formats--vinyl (33 and 45 rpm), eight-track, cassette, and CD. And it now looks like recorded music as we knew it may be supplanted by music that has no physical form at all: digital downloads. Portable MP3 players such as Diamond's Rio are already a hit.

Tomorrow, who knows? Everything from living-room stereos to clock radios could be wired to play digital songs that we buy on the Web.

Of course, if you're oblivious to intellectual-property laws, the age of downloadable audio is in full swing. Tunes are flying off the Web as fast as pirated Britney Spears tapes off a street vendor's table. Consider the ingenious but questionable Napster (www.napster.com), which lets its users swap MP3 music files across the Net with point-and-click ease--copyrights be damned.

Already an institution on college campuses everywhere, Napster is the target of a lawsuit by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Me, if I can find my kind of music on the Internet, I'm more than happy to pay for it. (Hey, Iggy Pop needs to eat, too.) But I will not be bestowing my compact discs on the Salvation Army anytime soon.

Elvis Is Missing

With more than 250,000 downloadable songs--all legal, all free--MP3.com seemed like a logical spot to begin a virtual-music shopping excursion. However, precious few of its tracks are by musical superstars or even semi-well-known artists; not a problem for the acoustically adventurous, but vexing if (like me) you like your music comfortably familiar.

So I moved on to Listen.com, a site bankrolled in part by that arbiter of musical fashion, Madonna. This nifty search engine for MP3s (and competing formats, such as Liquid Audio) links only to aboveboard stuff, with lots of tracks by name-brand performers. True, the selection is hit-or-miss--sometimes bizarrely so. You can download 384 songs by Miles Davis but zero by Wynton Marsalis; there's music by the Animals, Byrds, and Eagles but not by the Beatles, Monkees, or Turtles. And there are multiple tracks by the Chairman of the Board but nary a one by the King or the Boss.

Many of the music files that Listen.com links to are free downloads. Others, however, cost around a buck apiece at such sites as Musicmaker.com and EMusic (www.emusic.com). How smoothly, you might ask, goes the download process? My purchases at EMusic (a couple of Herman's Hermits ditties) went off without a hitch. Over at Musicmaker, though, I paid good money for Marlene Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again," and all I got was an unplayable 28-byte file. I'm not sure what went wrong; Musicmaker customer service ignored my e-mails.

From CD TO Web

For the time being, I guess I'll meet the Web music revolution halfway. I'll put my archaic compact disc collection online--courtesy of a (mostly) cool MP3.com feature known as My.MP3.com. What makes it work is a free software download called Beam-It. Stick a CD in your PC's CD-ROM drive, and Beam-It adds its contents to a personal music library that you can listen to anywhere you've got a Net connection. The process takes seconds per CD. Rather than actually copying the disc, Beam-It unlocks a replica that's already stored on MP3.com's servers. Of the 40 CDs I've tried to have replicated so far, around 90 percent were available. (Among the missing: a Carole King disc and the Great Muppet Caper soundtrack.)At its best, My.MP3.com's Hi Fi mode comes close to CD quality, at least to my non-audiophile ears. But it devours bandwidth, so songs tend to sputter. (Even my cable modem has trouble keeping up.) The less glitch-prone Lo Fi mode has a tinny, AM radio-like sound but still makes for pleasant background noise.

As with Napster, the music industry has its knickers in a twist over My.MP3.com. Already, the RIAA is suing--despite the fact that the service aims to give you access to songs you paid for on CD. And you can't e-mail bootlegs to your buddies, since music is delivered as streaming audio that can't be saved to a hard drive.

My take: Beam-It fans need feel no more guilty than folks who bought VCRs back when Hollywood tried to outlaw that emerging technology. And I'm sure the knotty legal issues surrounding online music will get untangled. Maybe even soon, given the America Online-Time Warner merger that will make AOL one of the biggest music publishers on earth.

Insert your own "You've Got Songs!" quip here--and tune in tomorrow for further developments.

Contact PC World Senior Editor Harry McCracken at websavvy@pcworld.com.

FYI

Who says the web is so popular? More than 95 percent of the people on the planet don't have access to the Internet.

Source: NUA Internet Surveys

On the Net...

At Your Service: Need your house painted? Your poodle groomed? Your wedding photographed? Then take a gander at Handshake.com and EFrenzy (www.efrenzy.com), new sites designed to put folks who need services in touch with those who provide them. The biggest benefit: competing price quotes from multiple companies... Green Stamps Get Wired: S&H Green Stamps are back--and online--at Greenpoints.com. You get 20 points for every dollar spent at 1800Flowers.com, Borders.com, and Dell.com, among other sites. Collect 129,600 points, and a two-person kayak could be yours... Amazon Annoyance: Alexa (www.alexa.com), a Web navigation tool that was once one of my favorite browser plug-ins, has not been improved by its strange, intrusive new ZBubbles feature.

The main purpose seems to be to nudge you to shop at Amazon.com (which now owns Alexa) no matter where you go on the Web. Gee, thanks.

Gimme Five

Web Shopping Review Sites

There must be 15 kajillion shopping sites on the Web, maybe more. So who deserves your business? Find out at these sites, which rate online stores for selection, price, and service.

1. RatingWonders.com: Ordinary netizens and the site's own reviewers judge hundreds of Web stores in more than 75 categories; good store policy info, too.

2. ResellerRatings.com: More than 14,000 shoppers provide often fearlessly critical evaluations of 1100 mail-order hardware and software merchants.

3. Gomez.com: Astute evaluations of online book stores, travel agents, toy emporiums, and more from the much-respected research firm.

4. BizRate.com: The grading curve seems overly generous at this user-review site, but plentiful facts on store policies and a shopping rebate program make it worth a visit.

5. ShopNow Consumer Guide (www.2020consumer.com): Real shoppers' ratings presented as slick bar charts, plus a shopping bot and consumer tips; would benefit from higher voter turnout.

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