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BuyMusic offers 300,000 songs to US PC users

Not as cheap as it looks

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The latest challenger to Apple's online iTunes Music Store launched in New York today. And the new service, BuyMusic.com, is already claiming to be the world's biggest music download store.

How come? It claims it offers more songs than any other legal site - 300,000 tracks, according to its home page, from all the major labels and many independents. By contrast, Apple's service launched in May with around 200,000 songs, and was still quoting that same tally as of 23 June. Roxio's Pressplay is said to have around 300,000 songs. Listen.com's Rhapsody's probably somewhere between the two totals.

BuyMusic has certainly learned from Apple's example. It's a subscription-free service, and is touting headline prices of 79 cents a track and $7.95 an album. In fact, our random selection of new albums and oldies turned up rather more 99 cents tracks and $9.99 albums than those offered at the lower price.

The new service is also a pure Microsoft house, using .NET for the back-end stuff and Windows Media 9 for the content and - crucially - the DRM. Like Apple's service, BuyMusic offers full-quality (128kbps) 30-second previews of each track. It also allows tracks to be burned to CD. Different labels apply different rules, however, so while some tracks can be burned a number of times, others may limit that feature to a single burn, or possibly even not at all. The same applies to sharing songs across local PCs and copying to portable players.

Finally, like iTunes Music Service, BuyMusic is only licensed to supply music to the US market.

Right now BuyMusic doesn't support the Mac, in the same way Apple doesn't support Windows. Apple says it's still on track to support Windows by the end of the year, and we guess BuyMusic will pitch to Mac owners just as soon as Microsoft ports Windows Media Player 9 to the Mac (it's in the works, apparently; version 8 is already available).

Not that either service needs to kill of the other. Just as rival High Street record stores can co-exist, so too can online music retailers. Different punters will pick one over t'other, just as some buyers prefer HMV and others pick Virgin. Apple has the advantage of a more loyal user base, and in any case isn't daft enough to assume that its own offering wouldn't be emulated by the likes of BuyMusic.

BuyMusic supports a broader range of portable players, unlike Apple which only wants iPod users on board. But given iTunes broader player support, Apple can extend the Music Service likewise if it perceives that its iPod-only policy is hindering sales.

Meanwhile, the major labels can rub their hands. They finally have three exemplar (ie. casual buy, non-subscription) DRM-based services (the other is Europe's OD2) to flog their wares at almost no cost to themselves. Yes, online file sharing isn't going to go away, and it will always (for the near future at least) be easy to copy tracks to CD and back again, but now at least there are legitimate channels for online users to drift to, particularly older, salaried buyers who generally prefer to use real services and don't mind paying for the privilege. ®

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