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Subscription music confusion--Ask the Editors

CNET digital audio editor Jasmine France answers questions about subscription music services.

What can I say: I'm a sucker for constructive feedback. Recently, I posted a piece about why I'm so infatuated with Rhapsody's subscription service, and I was pleased as punch to hear that the unconventional music model has some supporters aside from myself. The article also generated a fair amount of questions about the service and how exactly it works--understandable, what with the fact that the subscription music model is not exactly transparent. This week's MP3 Mailbox Monday addresses two aspects the model that I think will be particularly helpful for subscription music newcomers.

Q: I was told by a friend that once he declined the yearly service offered by Rhapsody, he was no longer able to play his MP3 songs already downloaded to his personal MP3 player. I do not know the maker of the personal player, but I know he had downloaded the files to his computer, and transferred them to the player, free MP3's, which were part of a trial offer from Rhapsody. What I would like to know: how can the player not function and play those MP3's once he no longer had an active account at the Rhapsody site? Thanks for your help. -- Richard, via e-mail.

A: I doubt that they were "free MP3s." If he signed up for a free trial of Rhapsody, he would have been able to download and stream any music from the Rhapsody catalog during that free trial, but after the trial was up, he would no longer be able to play the files (unless he continued the subscription by paying for it). The tracks themselves were not free--the subscription was during that time. Once the subscription is up, you no longer get access to the music.

Also, the files were likely not MP3s at all, but DRM-protected WMAs, which is what Rhapsody uses for its subscription catalog. The reason it uses this type of file is that WMA DRM10 tracks are capable of having a timer built in, which allows them to lock after a certain time period if a person does not continue paying for the subscription. (Likewise, in order for a device to support subscription music, it has to have a hardware clock built in that is compatible with this timer.)

Your confusion is certainly understandable (and not uncommon). It's probably easiest to think of it like a cable subscription with DVR service. If you stop paying for the cable and DVR service, your cable gets shut off. Then--in most case--after a few weeks, when the DVR box tries to "phone home" and figures out you are no longer a paying customer, the content that has been downloaded to the box becomes unavailable to you.

Rhapsody has to use this model in order to provide the service legally, while still offering a catalog of 6-plus million tracks from every major label and countless indies. Think of the music labels like the cable company: they're in business to make money.

Q: Because of you, I am toying with going with the "To Go" version of Rhapsody. Right now I have about 2,500 songs in my iTunes...and I have an 80GB iPod. Are you saying that so long as I stay a subscriber to Rhapsody, I can download as much music as I wish to my iTunes/MP3 player? I am in software development myself, so I am very careful to follow the following line: if I use it, I pay for it. I spend easily $30-40/month on new music from Amazon and iTunes (and would probably spend MUCH more if I didn't have 2 little kids at home to feed). -- Rob, via e-mail

A: The music you would download or stream from Rhapsody would be handled through its own software, rather than iTunes, so it's a good idea to check out the software first and make sure you're comfortable with it. Also, I believe the To Go service has a two-week trial if you want to give it a try before committing. But, yes, it's just like a cable subscription: as long as you keep paying your monthly service charge, you get to listen to the music. (And sometimes there are deals for paying for a full year upfront, if that is something that interests you.)

Another cool aspect of Rhapsody that I didn't mention in that article is that you can access the service from the Web, so you can stream music from any Internet-connected system, such as one running Mac or Linux, neither of which is compatible with the software client download.

A final thing you want to keep in mind is that Rhapsody To Go is not compatible with the iPod. This is really a limitation of the iPod, rather than Rhapsody, but it's a bummer for many people. However, you can find exceptional deals on certain players that do work with the service. I highly recommend picking up a Sansa Clip to use with the service. The player is very affordable (check for deals at Wal-Mart and the like) and perfect for the gym or other active pursuits. If you want a device with a few more features, such as a color screen, consider the Sony S-Series Walkman.

MP3 Mailbox Monday is a recurring feature where I answer a selection of questions about MP3 players and accessories, such as headphones, speakers, and music services and software. Check back often to see if the advice presented here might be of some use to you, or send your questions directly to me. (Note: We never include last names, but if you prefer to remain completely anonymous, please state as much in your e-mail.)