Commentary: MTV Loses Its Urge, and So Do I

As MTV ends its partnership with Microsoft and starts one with Real, only one thing is clear: The online music world may be growing, but it’s still frustrating.MTV, Microsoft, and RealNetworks all made news this week in the same set of headlines: MTV, which was lauded as a primary partner when Microsoft launched its most recent media player, has seen disappointing sales on the MTV-Microsoft Urge platform. So it's heading away from Urge and into a deal with Real, throwing its weight behind the Rhapsody platform.

It's no wonder that the music industry is in a state of flux: Apple's dominance of the online music space with the iTunes Store continues unabated. The iTunes Store is currently the third-largest seller of music in the nation, recently surpassing Amazon and Target, which primarily sell physical CDs. And Apple's false modesty about not making anything on the sale of music was also recently shattered as it announced record revenues—along with record profits—bolstered by a 33 percent year-over-year increase in sale of content from the iTunes Store. Music-related sales now account for 40% of the company's revenues.

Even competitors are having to support the iTunes/iPod ecosystem. Wal-Mart's online music service notes that its downloaded files "play on almost all portable media devices, including Apple iPod and Microsoft Zune." Universal is also experimenting with non-DRM music; it appears that it will play on the iPod although Universal says it won't sell that content online in the iTunes Store. Some analysts argue that supporting the iPod is the only way to have a viable online music presence.

"The introduction of services that offer digital music to the installed base of iPod users will help drive more iPod sales," said Susan Kevorkian, an IDC analyst in a recent Los Angeles Times interview.

Against this backdrop, I decided to give Rhapsody a spin to see what MTV is planning. Rhapsody is a subscription-based site that Real has been growing for quite some time; according to the site, Rhaspody features access to over 3 million songs in a subscription mode—in other words, you can listen to those you like as long as you pay your subscription each month.

The main page also pitches access to these songs directly via a browser with "no bulky software to download," a well-placed shot at iTunes. MTV also grappled with the same issue, as those who downloaded the Windows Media Player also required an additional download if they wanted to use Urge to its full potential. It's also an issue for those on Windows that don’t want to download the iTunes software.

I've been looking for an option to listen to my music from anywhere I can get access to a browser, which is one more reason to eliminate carrying a laptop while I travel, which is part of the appeal of Rhapsody. I also recently tested a clean install of WindowsMedia/Urge and iTunes; it took about 23 minutes to go through the process of getting everything set up and ready to listen to music (although Windows includes Windows Media Player and the Mac OS includes iTunes, which would trim setup time considerably for users on those operating systems).

Rhapsody's main page noted it had a 14-day trial, so I decided to take it for a spin, especially after the site pitched access to so many songs. For those of you, like me, who abandoned Real a few years ago after being fed up with all the ads in the player and the privacy concerns, I'll note that the 14-day trial sign up requires a credit card, claiming that it won't charge the card if cancelled within the 14 days.

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