The Digital Beat: Radio MX Means More Music for Your Ears

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Despite all the controversies over Napster, plenty of companies want a piece of the digital music pie. And even the ones who have a slice want a bigger portion. Recently, Musicmatch, creators of the popular MP3 player software, launched a trial version of Radio MX: a radio subscription service that will charge members $50 per year to access a database of what are hoped to be around 30,000 songs. This is more good news for music fans, who can count on even more ways to get the songs they want online. That is, of course, if Musicmatch can pull it off.

Musicmatch is going head-to-head with other new subscriptions services: MusicNet, a paid streaming and downloading service from EMI, AOL Time Warner, and Bertelsmann that will be available via AOL and Real Networks; and Duet, a similar plan being offered by Universal and Sony. But what's different about Musicmatch is that it's not a consortium of record companies; it's a software application. That means it must secure the rights to include songs via the major labels.

For it's part, Musicmatch says that it's worth the deal making because of its massive user base: including 18 million registered users, 750,000 of whom are reported to use its radio feature each month. The company earned $10.1 million last year thanks alone to users who pay for premium versions of the player. The company says it can earn an additional $20 million to $25 million if a mere 2.5% of its users sign up for Radio MX.

Winamp, one of Musicmatch's main competitors, has taken a far more indie-minded approach to customizable radio with Shoutcast: a free plug-in that lets users broadcast their own specially assembled radio streams. But Shoutcast, for now, is more of an added feature than a viable industry. And since AOL owns Nullsoft, the creator of Winamp, don't expect the company to compete with its MusicNet service any time soon.

Whether MusicMatch fails or succeeds, the very attempt to expand is more good news for consumers. Companies have not been competing this aggressively to get music to fans in years. And this means that you'll have more choices and more means of getting the kind of music you want online. It's kind of ironic, given the gloom and doom surrounding the dot com crash. Despite the layoffs and cutbacks, competition in the digital music business has never been livelier. And as the crash heals and broadband expands, the battle will only heat up.

And just who will sign up for subscription deals like Radio MX? More music fans than a lot of people might think. After all, there has been a forty percent decline in Napster use since that service began filtering it's goods; I'm guessing that those forty percent are predominantly casual digital downloaders -- the people who felt kind of naughty for sucking down bootlegs in the first place. Fifty dollars per year is a small price to get they want and live guilt-free.

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