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If Best Buy walks, Real's Rhapsody will hurt

Best Buy's acquisition of Napster means Rhapsody may no longer have the retail giant to help tell device makers to play nice with the music service.

digital music

Best Buy's acquisition of Napster is likely to mean RealNetwork's Rhapsody music service will wave goodbye to more than just one of its biggest partners.

Rhapsody of course powered Best Buy's digital music store. Two music insiders told me on Thursday, while I was reporting a story about whether Apple is wise to get into music subscriptions, that the Napster acquisition will almost certainly mean Best Buy will sever it's relationship with Rhapsody. This means that RealNetwork's CEO Rob Glaser would no longer have the muscle behind him to demand electronics companies make their players compatible with his service.

RealNetwork's CEO Rob Glaser would no longer have the muscle behind him to demand electronics companies make their players compatible with the service.

As the largest electronics retailer, Best Buy could lean on electronics makers (all except Apple) to make sure their devices worked well with its music service, Best Buy Digital Music Store, powered by Rhapsody. There's a story behind this tortured name and I'll get to in a sec.

"The acquisition news was just announced so we are still in discussions with Best Buy about our longer-term relationship," a Rhapsody spokesman said in an e-mail.

The situation illustrates a major headache for music subscription services. Napster and Rhapsody have had to cater to the host of digital music players on the market. When those devices made changes to their software, it could cause serious glitches in how the music service performed on them.

Considerable expense and effort went into looking for problems each time a device was upgraded.

One of the questions raised by the Best Buy-Napster deal is whether the retailer intends to battle Apple. That seems unlikely. According to one source close to RealNetworks, what Best Buy has complained about for a long time is not having enough control over its music service. Best Buy began offering the Rhapsody service in 2003. Two years later, Best Buy cut a deal with Napster and also bought a 10-percent stake in that service.

In 2006, Best Buy execs went back to Rhapsody and said that it wanted to offer a branded music service. That's how the Best Buy Digital Music Store powered by Rhapsody was born.

Losing Best Buy won't mean the end of the world to Rhapsody, said the source. Yahoo Music has encouraged former customers to join Rhapsody. Best Buy was a healthy driver of subscribers and of course, there was the strategic value. But overall, the outlook for stand-alone subscription services doesn't look good.