MusicNow Launches

No one knows what online music services may ultimately look like, but new models continue to pop up for consumers to test-drive.

One of the latest is MusicNow, a collaboration between Clear Channel Radio and FullAudio Corporation. Launched April 17 in conjunction with Clear Channel's five radio stations in Phoenix, Arizona, the service lets subscribers download 50 songs per month from a station's website for a fee of $7.99 (the "Gold Plan"), or 100 for $14.99 ("Platinum"). New subscribers must submit credit-card numbers to complete the sign-on procedure; a three-day "free trial" period gives them the chance to try the service without making a full commitment. The service will be promoted on the air and in print advertising, according to announcements from Clear Channel. MusicNow should not be confused with the British independent record label of the same name.

The MusicNow program is intended to leverage radio stations' presence in their respective communities, while allowing them to benefit from the burgeoning online music phenomenon, according to Clear Channel general manager John Martin. MusicNow isn't an audio streaming service, as offered by hundreds of radio stations, but is instead "a cache-download service platform for Clear Channel's own co-branded consumer digital music service," Martin explained. "Our radio stations want to build loyalty among their listeners and benefit from their status as the world's leading music programmers. FullAudio's digital subscription service is the industry's first example of an on-demand music service that addresses these needs."

"Needs," apparently, don't include portability. MusicNow downloads are formatted for Microsoft Windows Media Player using Windows Media Audio 8 software. Songs are encrypted with Windows Media Digital Rights Management, and can be saved on a user's hard drive but not exported to CD-Rs or MP3 players, much like the offerings of pressplay and MusicNet, two online music services backed by the music industry. Neither can they be easily transferred to other computers.

Whether or not software like Audio Conversion Wizard, which enables the translation of audio files from any common format to another—such as from .WAV to MP3—also enables the exporting of MusicNow downloads isn't clear. It's a fairly safe assumption that FullAudio's built-in constraints on the use of downloads are so restrictive that the MusicNow service may not attract more than a few drive-by appraisals, especially in an environment rife with free music downloads.

Phoenix adult contemporary station KESZ-FM's MusicNow subscriber agreement includes several pages of legalese, and its list of frequently asked questions informs prospective subscribers that although they may select songs or alter their online music collections from any Internet-connected computer, the songs themselves can be heard only from one designated computer—presumably, the main one in a subscriber's home. Nonetheless, should the experiment work as hoped, Clear Channel will expand it to stations in other markets later this year, including Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City.

The library of available tunes reflects both the individual station's "brand," to quote FullAudio president James Glicker, and the list of recordings approved for download by Universal Music, Warner Music Group, and EMI Recorded Music, music labels that have signed agreements with FullAudio. The company is "agnostic" (in Silicon Valley's curious use of that adjective, meaning unaffiliated) regarding its relations with record labels. FullAudio offerings will expand as other agreements are signed with copyright owners; on April 11, the company signed a nonexclusive licensing deal for online use of songs owned by publishing rights organization the Harry Fox Agency. Negotiations are underway with Sony Music and BMG, according to Glicker.