Napster is looking to shake up the online music scene once more. On Tuesday, the digital-music pioneer announced the launch of what it described as "the world's largest and most comprehensive MP3 store." All downloads will be free of digital-rights management (DRM) restrictions.
The store is more than 50 percent larger than any other MP3 store, according to the company, and has the largest library of independent music anywhere -- reportedly, more than six million tracks. The MP3 format can be used on virtually all MP3 players and music phones. Since this includes the iPod and the iPhone, some industry observers see this newest venture as a possible major competitor to the dominant online music site, Apple's iTunes Store.
99 Cents Per Song
Napster said it is the first music-subscription service with major-label music that offers all its catalog for MP3 downloads. Pricing for downloads is 99 cents for one MP3 song and $9.95 for most albums. Napster previously focused on an "all you can eat" monthly subscription.
Most of the catalog's music is available at a high-quality 256 Kbps, and high-resolution album art is included. Users can still subscribe to the site's Web-based, on-demand streaming service, and the streams can be heard on any Net-connected computer without the need to download software.
Napster Chairman and CEO Chris Gorog said there is a clear need for music fans to have "the convenience, ease of use and broad interoperability of the DRM-free MP3 format," with both major-label artists and independent music in one place.
Amazon, iTunes, MySpace
James McQuivey, an analyst with industry research firm Forrester, said if he were Napster, he would also launch an MP3 store. But the primary competitive target, he added, isn't the iTunes Store but Amazon, which also has a large MP3 store. iTunes has about 70 percent of the U.S. market, and in April it became the largest music retailer in the nation, including both online and brick-and-mortar stores.
Several other major online music stores have also recently opened. Social-networking site MySpace announced last month a DRM-free online music store with the backing of major labels. Amazon also introduced its DRM-free, MP3 store with more than two million songs.
Some observers have suggested that music purchases could become a commodity, where consumers decide where to buy a song based primarily on price. In that scenario, added value such as a MySpace community or a streaming music subscription service could be an important factor.
But McQuivey said the iTunes Store has "very little to worry about from yet another store selling the same music they sell" because of the long-standing relationship it has with iPod and iPhone customers. He noted that Apple is more focused long-term on other devices, such as Nokia's phones, that "might infringe on its intimate iPod relationship with consumers."