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Nokia's free music offer isn't so free

Comes With Music comes with indies - and a price

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Few music business people expect Nokia's unlimited free music giveaway to be repeated, or even last very long. There simply aren't enough large consumer companies prepared to take such an expensive gamble.

And Nokia's richest partners aren't interested in helping out.

But it's a radical and interesting offering that merits some serious analysis: certainly, much more than Nokia's other Dad-at-the-Disco attempts to get down with da yoot.

As we wrote last December - Comes With Music is much more subtle and interesting than most people gave it credit for. There are strings attached, but fewer than with any such previous bundling promotion.

Nokia has been inhaling Chris Anderson's "Freetardonomics," and this is what comes out when it exhales. The idea behind Comes With Music is to make Nokia's handsets more attractive by giving away music - unlimited for one year, which the punter can then keep. Two or three particularly newsworthy aspects have emerged from the formal announcement today.

Unlike MySpace Music, Nokia has signed deals with (real) indie labels. The Beggars Group (representing 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade, and XL), Pias, and Pinnacle (representing hundreds more) have signed up - as well as the big four labels: Universal, Sony, Warners, and EMI. The major publishers are also on board, too, says Nokia. Although MySpace is a site with an "indie" audience, News Corp. seems to think that serving them the music they want is supernumerary.

In addition, Nokia has confirmed that users will be able to keep the music they download in the first year indefinitely (which we knew) and move it around different devices (which we didn't). However, there is DRM involved, so devices must be "authorized," or approved against a central authentication server. That might prove too freedom-inhibiting for many. And thirdly, CwM users will be able to exchange songs with other CwM users. Sort of.

The operators snub Nokia

The real deal, as sold through Carphone Warehouse - the bit you sign your name to - looks less attractive than the general concept. While CwM will be offered to pay as you go customers, it requires a £129.95 upfront payment. And for that, you merely get a year old 2G handset, the 5310 XpressMusic phone.

This tells us that the mobile operators have again kicked sand at the Finns, blocking Nokia's traditional route to the mass market. We'll see why this is important in a moment.

What it means is that in practice, the business end of Comes With Music is neither "free," nor particularly cool. Since the big selling point is that it "feels like free" - apparently viewed as necessary to compete with free downloads - you may wonder what the point is. This is more a case of clumsy and slightly deceptive marketing, rather than a lousy product.

So right away, Nokia badly needs more CwM devices and more partners. But without the might of the mobile operators - their ubiquitous high street presence and deep subsidies - free won't look or feel like anything but an expensive, upfront music subscription program.

Maybe Nokia took one inhalation of Freetardonomics too many? Well, maybe it doesn't need to offer a free service, just one that's convenient and cracking value? That's where CwM's rival thinks it has the edge.

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