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MusicStation's on-demand radio goes live

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MusicStation, the service that aims to give unlimited mobile access to music worldwide for a small weekly fee, finally went live today.

The success of the venture, from British start-up Omnifone, will tell us a lot about whether punters are prepared to pay for digital music, rather than scoop it up for free. MusicStation is a Rhapsody-like service customised for mobiles: there are no extra data charges over the £1.99 weekly subscription, which goes on your mobile bill, and "file sharing" is encouraged - at least with other MusicStation users.

Omnifone has signed up the big four labels, made inroads into the indie sector, and has 30 carriers around the world. Today sees Norwegian-based Telenor, with 80 million subscribers, push MusicStation out first.

Founder and CEO Rob Lewis said the aim was simply giving people a service they can't do legitimately today:

"Customers are forced to do this illegally now. We're trying to give very easy access that's intuitive, doesn't need credit cards or wires, so they can discover and recommend music among themselves," he said. "And artists get paid."

Lewis said he'd agreed on main menu direct access to the player with all the major manufacturers - Nokia, Samsung, LG, and Sony Ericsson.

He also crowed that he'd beaten Apple to the stores: "We've beaten them to market globally, and by many months in Europe - unless you count very dodgy eBay purchases," he said, referring to the iPhone.

The hard work was getting global licensing deals in place; music services have had to strike deals territory by territory. "It's the first time over-the-air mobile price points have been made available from such a wide range of labels, globally," he said.

MusicStation will give curious punters a week's free service, and then subscriptions are £1.99 a week for the basic service, or £2.99 for a premium service with a PC or Mac based player.

Radio or virtual music collection?

But will it fly?

There's little doubt that Lewis has looked at the current mobile services and correctly concluded that they're "crap" - and he's not flinched from the much tougher job of trying to build something better.

The service is offered on most mid-range phones, not just a select few smartphones; there are no hidden data charges; it's really easy to use; sharing songs and playlists is easy, too. And if you lose your phone, MusicStation just loads up the replacement with all your tracks and playlists. The player also caches tunes you've downloaded so you can play them offline. Amazingly, rivals have neglected one or more of these fundamentals.

But subscription services that lose your music when you unsubscribe are a hard sell. Wasn't this an obstacle?

"Our view is a bold view: the reason music is sold at all is that the music industry could ONLY monetise music by selling a piece of vinyl, a tape, or a CD. Consumers are increasingly fickle - their trends and listening habits change on a very regular basis. So I don't think a small weekly fee for unrestricted access to music is much to ask," he told us.

Lewis argues that with Omnifone being a global service, you can even emigrate and pick up your music where you left off. He wants to make MusicStation a kind of "dial tone" for music, and has been trying to persuade the network operators to think the same way.

"Airlines once saw their key differentiator as building their own airplanes. They didn't think of flying as a global service. Once they did, the business took off," he told us.

A store it isn't, but if Omnifone can persuade people that it's an on-demand radio service with extra features, rather than a store, it's well-placed to succeed. With the backing of the operators and the handset guys, it might become the "Symbian" of mobile music. ®

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