Pressplay tunes up services

Netco tweaks downloads, better CD burns

Digital music service Pressplay will offer far more comprehensive CD burning and the ability to transfer tracks to portable devices — two functions for which consumers have been clamoring — as part of a revamped version 2.0 release set for August 1.

Update marks a major step forward for the subscription plan, backed by media giants Vivendi Universal and Sony, in the race to provide online music fans with a viable alternative to illicit file-swapping networks like Kazaa and Morpheus.

“This is the most significant announcement we’ve seen in this space in two years,” said P.J. McNealy, research director for consulting firm GartnerG2. “For the first time, they’re getting the right kind of licenses. There are still some hurdles to clear, but this raises the bar significantly for the other services.”

Under the new rules, Pressplay users will be able to choose from several tiers of service — some of which include the ability to download tracks permanently in a secure Windows Media format, burn them onto a CD or upload them to a portable player like SonicBlue’s Rio or CreativeLabs’ Nomad.

Catalog access

Pressplay also will continue to offer tethered downloads (which expire when a user’s subscription ends) and unlimited streaming of the Netco’s 100,000-track digital library. Members also will get access to new pre-programmed digital services, which like radio stations will be arranged by genres and themes.

Pricing ranges from $9.95 a month, for unlimited streaming and tethered downloads, to $17.95 for an additional 10 portable downloads a month. Customers also can pay $179.40 for a year up front and get 120 portable downloads immediately, or buy them a la carte in packs of five, 10 and 20.

The revamp still doesn’t address consumers’ other big beef with legitimate subscription services — limited content. Pressplay has secured licenses from only three of the big five label groups: Universal Music, Sony Music and EMI.

But company execs said they expect that to change quickly, with new deals coming as labels become more cognizant of the potential benefits — and convince more of their artists to grant digital licenses for their music.

Leading field

The retooling also will move Pressplay ahead of its main label-backed rival. MusicNet, which is part-owned by AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann and EMI, does not offer portability or permanent downloads.

Nor does Rhapsody, an independent streaming service from Netco — although Listen has beaten its rivals in signing licensing deals with all five majors. And both MusicNet and Listen have said they’re planning to add portability functions soon.

In a statement, MusicNet said Wednesday it is “pleased that the industry is advancing. MusicNet is committed to providing whatever the marketplace requires.”

Pressplay topper Michael Bebel, who recently replaced departed chief Andy Schuon, said he expects the company to start experimenting with marketing plans for the new services — which McNealy said is crucial for mainstream adoption — in the fourth quarter of this year, with a full-blown campaign to get rolling in early 2003.

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