The Sony Corporation, which invented the Walkman and markets the catalogs of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam, has jumped into the ninety-nine-cent song-download market dominated by Apple’s iTunes Music Store.
But there’s a catch: Sony’s new online store, Connect, works only with Sony players and its unique ATRAC file format. With this new format, users can only burn songs onto a MiniDisc, such as those used in the upcoming forty-five-hour-capacity Hi-MD Walkman and compatible Sony players. The process is not as easy as transferring an entire music library onto an iPod.
And though the Connect service features 500,000 downloadable songs, it doesn’t offer key classics from some Sony recording giants. Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Springsteen’s Born to Run are unavailable, and Connect sells only three tracks from Pearl Jam’s Ten – yet iTunes sells all three full albums.
The service is relatively easy to navigate: To buy a song or album, users can click, Amazon.com-style, on ADD TO CART, or simply download directly. Plus, Sony’s Connect-compatible devices are cheaper ($60 to $400, compared with $250 to $500 for iPods), and at least one album, Radiohead‘s Kid A ($9.99 per download), is available here but not at iTunes.
Can Connect’s focus on the MiniDisc brand – which is popular in Japan but has struggled in the U.S. – effectively compete with the iPod-iTunes combination? “There are people who swear by MiniDisc,” says Joe Wilcox, an analyst with Jupiter Research. “Is it the big mass-market play? I’m not convinced.” But Jay Samit, Connect’s general manager, says, “We’re not trying to make a closed, walled garden but rather an open format that is well established and is the most popular format out there in portable devices.” The device has one fan: Sheryl Crow, who recently played a set on a United Airlines flight as part of a promotional push for the service. “These gadgets are making people excited about new music,” she says.
This story is from the June 10th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.