Audio Divx for the Internet?

MP3-formatted audio files are considered to be the most popular streaming technology on the Internet, but the major record labels have so far shunned the format, which doesn't offer as much security and pay-per-download options as they'd like. Several announcements last week coincided with the WebNoize conference in Los Angeles and revealed what a few of the labels are thinking.

Capitol Records and announced that they are joining forces to create a new, co-branded Capitol Records/ music channel. The new channel will be hosted on the website and will showcase free audio and video programming from Capitol Records and its family of labels. The idea is to give listeners a taste of material from new CDs, in hopes that a purchase will follow. "Capitol Records and have a history of successfully promoting artists together on the Internet," said Robin Bechtel, senior director of new media at Capitol. "Through each promotion, has proven to be a valuable sales, marketing, and distribution vehicle to reach new fans, and we have seen the results in increased demand for our artists' music online."

Also last week, Sony Music Online and RealNetworks, Inc. announced the Beta release of what they describe as "the Internet's first pay-per-listen jukebox," containing several hundred songs available on demand using RealNetworks' RealPlayer. The beta release of The Jukebox is accessible at Sony's website.

What's interesting about Sony's approach is not the technology involved---standard RealPlayer streaming with toll software---but whether an approach like this will catch on with music fans. To use The Jukebox, visitors browse through hundreds of song titles and create a customized playlist. Once the playlist is complete, users submit a credit-card number, select the number of song titles they want to hear, and select a password. The pricing is as follows: 10 selections cost $2.50, 22 selections cost $5, and 50 selections cost $10. Once the process is complete, the user returns to the playlist to listen to their selections either right away or later, the songs being available for a 24-hour period once they've been played.

Assuming the music you want to hear is produced by a Sony artist, The Jukebox will satisfy those who prefer not to purchase a CD but would rather program their own virtual playlists. Sony also points out that the music is delivered to play on your PC, which may be the only way for some to listen to music while working. Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks, was obviously happy with the deal: "We are pleased that Sony Music Online is taking the lead in becoming the first major record label to introduce an Internet Jukebox. Music fans will appreciate the ability to access full-length songs from a broad range of Sony Music recording artists."

The Jukebox is an interesting new approach to music distribution, but the big question remains: Does the pay-per-use model appeal to a market that is already comfortable with purchasing and keeping an album of music, or hearing songs for free on the radio? The approach appears similar in many ways to the Divx video model, in which pay-per-view with unlimited viewing within a short time period is being tested---so far with mixed results. Many have felt that any technology in which a clock is ticking in the background will never go over with users. Only time will tell.