An online digital music service has debuted offering US99c song downloads and the fewest restrictions of any Windows-based service on how often customers may copy song files onto CDs and other devices.
The MusicMatch Downloads service, from San Diego-based software maker MusicMatch, benefits from the sort of generous music licensing rights previously only granted by the top five recording companies to Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store.
ITunes only works for now on Apple's Macintosh computers, which make up just 3 per cent of the personal computer market.
Like iTunes, MusicMatch lets its customers transfer the songs they buy to up to three PCs. Users also can send the songs to digital music devices capable of playing Windows Media Audio files.
Individual songs may be burned or copied to CDs without restriction, although CDs with the same order of songs can only be burned five times to prevent pirates from churning out scores of full copies. ITunes allows up to 10 CDs to be burned with the same playlist.
Also like iTunes, full album downloads will start at $US9.99. MusicMatch is initially offering 211,000 songs from major and independent music labels, and plans to expand its catalog to more than a half-million songs by the end of the year.
MusicMatch Downloads will compete with a slew of other online music services catering to the non-Macintosh PC market, including Buy.com's BuyMusic.com, RealNetworks' Rhapsody, MusicNow, MusicNet and pressplay, which is due to be relaunched this year under the name Napster 2.0. Apple also plans to release a Windows version of iTunes by the end of the year.
MusicMatch counts on benefiting from a market that is already somewhat built-in - the company's music player software has been downloaded about 40 million times since 1997 and it regularly comes installed on new PCs.
The company also has a list of customers who subscribe to its premium streaming music service. MusicMatch Downloads will be integrated into the same software.
Still, none of the legitimate services has managed to drive substantial traffic away from free file-sharing networks, such as Kazaa, which record companies blame for a 31 per cent slide in CD sales the past three years. Most of the legal offerings have limited selection and restrictions on what fans can do with their music.
Until now, record labels had been reluctant to loosen usage restrictions for the vast majority of computer users. Their worries have been eased in part by the success of iTunes, which has sold more than 10 million songs since its launch in April.
The companies also are recognizing the need to offer music fans a palatable means of getting music online, particularly now that the industry has begun taking legal action against music fans in hopes of stifling illegal downloading.