Matador jumps in the ring with Napster

In a sign that it is still preparing to enter the ring of online music service providers, Napster Inc. announced a licensing agreement this week with leading independent record label Matador Records Inc.

But while Napster is working hard to unveil its service, which is now due to be launched in the first quarter of next year, other online music services are already going live, leaving some speculation as to how the former rebel contender will fare in the high-stakes battle for listeners.

Major-label-backed music subscription service MusicNet was officially launched as part of RealNetworks Inc.'s RealOne subscription content service Tuesday. Although Napster is a MusicNet affiliate, giving it access to musical content owned by heavyweights AOL Time Warner Inc., Bertelsmann AG, and EMI Group PLC, the service still has to compete on its own.

Napster's deal with Matador is just the latest in a string of licensing agreements it has made with over 5,000 independent labels, however, adding to the record-superstore load of content the service hopes to offer at launch.

But a message recently posted on Napster's Web site indicates that basic features of the new service, such as pricing and availability, are still in flux.

"We understand that convenient access to a wide range of content is one of the biggest reasons people go to the Web for music, and we're doing everything we can to bring that to you. Our primary focus now is getting licenses for music -- an effort that will affect our launch date and the cost of the service," the posting reads.

While Napster continues to prepare for a comeback, after having its peer-to-peer free file swapping service knocked offline earlier this year for copyright infringement, rival services are making a splash.

Listen.com Inc. managed to beat MusicNet's unveiling by one day when it released its Rhapsody subscription service Monday [See, "Listen.com unwraps its subscription service," Dec. 3]. Rhapsody is a streaming service, however, that has yet to announce any major-label deals.

And in the end, content will be the make-or-break factor for all the online music service providers.

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