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Listen.com looks for the right note

Like everything else on the Web, the proliferation of downloadable music has become a bewildering mass--and sometimes mess--to sort through.

Like everything else on the Web, the proliferation of downloadable music has become a bewildering mass--and sometimes mess--to sort through.

Listen.com, which launches today, is looking to solve that problem for consumers, according to chief executive Rob Reid.

"There are lots and lots of music destinations out there" offering music for download, content about music, or a combination," Reid said in an interview. "But there's no directory. That's the need we're trying to fill."

Even at this nascent stage, countless unsigned artists are already offering free downloads of their music, hoping to build a following and be discovered by a major label. Mainstream record companies are beginning to offer songs for download as well, though they are wary of copyright issues.

Some say it is only a matter of time before the mass market regularly turns to the Net as a source for acquiring music.

Several sites offer music for download by unknown artists, such as MP3.com and the Internet Underground Music Archive, which is owned by download site EMusic.com. Critics have said that, although these sites allow bands to distribute their music globally at minimal cost, they offer little guidance to consumers, who are used to having new music served up to them on the radio, MTV, and other mass-market sources.

Listen.com's idea is to offer links to downloadable music in any format, categorized and reviewed by a staff of editors instead of robotic technology. Reid said the human element is what differentiates Listen.com from other music and entertainment search sites, such as Scour.net.

The site also will only point to authorized songs, not illegal MP3 files, Reid said. He added that the site's policy--"all legal, all the time"--was devised for several reasons: "It would be tough to build a business on aiding and abetting an illegal activity"; doing so would hurt the site's budding relationship with established artists and labels, which are crucial to its success; and it creates "a terrible consumer experience," because illegal files also are less reliable than legal ones.

Reid noted that the reviews are not designed to sway a user's interest one way or the other, but to guide users toward what they want.

"The reviews are not judgmental--this is not a journalistic property per se," Reid said. "It's more like, 'What does the music sound like? What mood does it evoke?'"

"The concept of a filter is so crucial," said Marc Geiger, who heads Artist Direct, a Net entertainment company that comprises a booking agency, a record label, and the Ultimate Band List. Geiger also cofounded the Lollapalooza concert tour.

"I'm all about the romantic notion of MP3 and free access. But I know that with it comes a glut of artists," Geiger said. "Filters are going to be key to sifting through all this stuff."

Mark Hardie, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, agreed. But he pointed out that RollingStone.com is planning a similar service where bands can upload their MP3 files onto its site, and editors from Rolling Stone will choose the top ten each month.

Plus, "Rolling Stone has a much bigger name" than Listen.com, he said.

"Nobody is building a comprehensive directory like [Listen.com] that we know of," Reid said. "But a lot of people could, and we're realistic about it. No good market goes uncontested."

Halsey Minor, chief executive of CNET, is an investor in Listen.com.