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My music, my way

Last.fm got a lot of ink for what really was a half step, says CNET News.com's Charles Cooper. Digital music consumers are still waiting to see the real deal.

Wall Street's been manic and office pools are springing up around the country wagering when CNBC pitchman Jim Cramer will suffer an on-air embolism.

But it's hard to get too carried away by the latest ups and downs of the stock market. We've survived worse. For my money, anyway, the more interesting story had absolutely zilch to do with stocks.

On Wednesday, the suits at CBS finally caved to reality and loosened many-- though not all--of the restrictions on its Internet music service, Last.fm.

I'll give them a B for trying, but it's just a half step. The truth is that the news is more significant as a possible harbinger of real change. Less so as an example of bold action on how the music industry will profitably co-exist with the Internet.

In this post, post-Napster age, Internet radio doesn't do it for me anymore--not when I can choose other, more attractive digital music alternatives.

First, the details. Until now, Last.fm offered Internet radio. A lot of people are fine with that sort of uni-directional arrangement. To each his own, but I've always chafed being on the receiving end of someone else's musical picks. In this post, post-Napster age, Internet radio doesn't do it for me anymore--not when I can choose other, more attractive digital music alternatives.

Some bright bulb at CBS convinced management the time was ripe to let listeners select their own tracks to stream. Unfortunately, Last.fm puts limitations on the number of times you can play a particular song: three. Also, you're not able to download the tunes to a portable music player.

That's a disappointment, though I imagine even reaching this stage involved no small amount of arm-twisting. Quincy Smith, who directs the CBS unit in charge of Last.fm, told The New York Times there was a "healthy tension" with the music labels. Translation: the music companies went batshit crazy at the first sign that CBS would open up the vault without strings attached.

So they struck a compromise--one hardly deserving of some of the curious coverage about "free music on-demand." Besides, users can already get digital music without paying from Napster and RealNetworks' Rhapsody, among others. Not to nitpick, but Last.fm sports a terribly clumsy interface. I still can't figure out how to automatically play multiple songs without the system forcing me to manually intervene when the track ends. Even more annoying, I'm required to page back each time I want to find an artist's other songs.

Those are minor details any good Web designer can fix. The bigger problem is a dated assumption about consumer behavior. Subscription services are so, well, 2003. I've heard RealNetworks' CEO Rob Glaser on several occasions plug music subscriptions as the future. It's a valiant try but he's tilting at windmills. The experience of the last several years is beyond contestation: most people either will download songs from Apple's iTunes Music Store--or they'll steal them.

In fits and starts, though, the music world is heading toward advertising-supported models for downloadable music. If Web sites like Imeem, Spiral Frog, and Ruckus Network can prove there's a real business, the studios' icy resistance may begin to thaw.