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Virgin to unveil online music service

In partnership with Wavo, Virgin JamCast will deliver music without the wait normally associated with downloading over traditional dial-up modems, but the service could prove difficult to use.

Virgin Entertainment Group today will launch an online service dubbed Virgin JamCast that delivers music without the wait normally associated with downloading over traditional dial-up modems.

But the service may prove difficult to use. The music will be offered in a number of formats, and each music company can specify different terms for previewing the individual tracks.

As a result, one company might allow a user to listen to a track three times while another would let him do so for three days. That could confuse consumers, who are accustomed to buying a CD and being able to play it in any CD player, regardless of which record company released it.

Virgin JamCast is the fruit of a deal between Virgin and Wavo, whose "technologies gather, consolidate, customize, and distribute digital text, graphics, music, and video over a variety of reliable, low-cost Wavo-developed or enhanced broadcast, satellite, and Internet-based delivery systems," according to the company's Web site.

Under the terms, both companies are significant shareholders in JamCast.com. In addition, Virgin Entertainment Group--which comprises Virgin Megastores, Virgin Megastore Online, and other properties--has rights to buy a stake in Wavo, executives said.

The agreement comes as record companies, retailers, and Internet music companies increasingly look to the Web as a means to distribute music.

Record companies, which previously hesitated to put full-length songs on the Net, now are beginning to offer more music online, mostly for promotional purposes. For example, EMI in June disclosed a deal with Liquid Audio in which Liquid would encode EMI's music for use on the Web.

For Virgin, the Wavo deal is the latest move in the company's online strategy. Virgin Megastores in June was the first retailer to agree to offer music downloads in stores via kiosks from Digital On-Demand. Using the kiosks, customers can listen to samples and buy recordings in stores, even if the store does not have the recordings in stock at the time.

Wavo employs Internet protocol (IP) multicasting technology, which allows it to broadcast content via the Internet, according to company executives. IP multicasting traditionally has been used by businesses, rather than for consumer applications.

Wavo also broadcasts content via television signals through set-top boxes. In both instances, the content is "cached locally" or stored on the user's hard drive, said Peter White, president of Wavo. "The customer specifies what content they're interested in," and Wavo each week sends a package of files relevant to the customer's request, he said.

Thom Kozik, executive vice president of marketing and business development for Wavo, added that the advantage to IP multicasting--as opposed to traditional methods of downloading or streaming--is that the speed at which the content is downloaded is only contingent upon the speed of the individual user's modem.

With traditional downloads or streaming, "no matter how fast your connection, you're bound by the speed of the server at the other end," White said, adding that JamCast eliminates other slowdowns.

Tailored to listeners' tastes
For example, if a user registers and requests country music, each week he will receive a package of music files--usually 20 to 30--that fall into that category. Some of the files will be full songs; others will be samples.

He can play the first song and then the other files will play automatically, which to the user would be similar to the experience of listening to the radio. Or he can look through the list of files, find tracks he wants, and play only those files. He then has the choice of whether or not to buy any of the tracks, or a CD by one or more of the artists.

If the user does nothing, the following week's broadcast will download over the files, effectively erasing them, White said.

One advantage to the service is that the user doesn't have to seek out the music; the content he requests is delivered to him weekly. In addition, there will be content from both major labels and independent artists; so as with traditional radio, a user "tunes in" to his preferred genre, and new music is "pushed" to him.

But unlike some services that require users to visit a site and then plow through countless tracks by unknown or little-known artists, the deal with Virgin means there is a filter of sorts in choosing what gets broadcast.

Virgin JamCast is not the same as Internet radio services such as Spinner, however. Net radio companies deliver songs via streaming, which means the content is playing as it's traveling from the host's computer to the user's, and the content is not stored on the user's computer. JamCast users download the content, which means it is stored on their hard drives.

The catch
But JamCast has its drawbacks. For one, because the music is coming from a variety of music companies, it will be downloadable via any number of formats, such as MP3, Liquid Audio, Windows Media Audio, and the like. So to play all the songs, a user has to have either a player that can play multiple formats--such as the RealJukebox--or he must have downloaded a number of different players.

By comparison, imagine turning on the radio and having to change stations to hear all the songs you want to hear. White pointed out that along with the RealJukebox, many players play multiple formats.

In addition, the different companies may set up different parameters around the songs they allow for download. For example, EMI could allow the user to keep a song for three days before deciding whether to buy it, while BMG might let him listen to it three times before deciding.

This could prove confusing to consumers, who are accustomed to the music from all their favorite artists being uniformly available. Consumers generally don't identify one record company or another, so the different rules placed on the downloads by the individual record companies will demand a behavioral change that they may not be quick to accept.