Roll up, roll up. Gather round everyone as DRM-free, no-cost, completely legal music downloads are here. "What's the catch?" we hear you cry. Why does there have to be a catch, you cynics? Does the idea of completely free music that's also completely free to be pirated seem outlandish, nay unfathomable?
Yes, it does, doesn't it? The catch to UK-based We7.com's music download service is that every single DRM-free track comes embedded with an audible pre-roll advertisement. That's right: every track. At the moment all the ads are default We7 ads, which are painfully akin to the very worst local FM radio station's ident jingle. With added "Don't steal!" messages.
We7 claims that after listening to ads for four weeks, users can download an ad-free version of the song. We're sceptical that users will be willing to wait that long, remember they've had the track for four weeks and then download another version. Downloaders are also given the option to pay for a normal, ad-free version of the song in the first place. There's no mention of prices as yet.
The four main record labels (of which none currently support this new service) want paying for their music, and they want paying well. Even EMI -- the first of the Big Four to release music without any DRM -- basically said, "If you don't want DRM, pay more for you music." These aren't the words of a label about to give out DRM-free tunes for the 30-60p advertisers will pay for each download of an ad-fitted song.
This service absolutely, categorically will not succeed. You can quote us on that. It's true the best way to combat piracy is to provide a realistic and affordable alternative, and free is certainly affordable. But music downloaders are not going to switch to using a service that costs the same as using BitTorrent or Limewire, but comes with abominable disclaimers or advertisements. It's also an issue that many, many downloaders don't consider what they're doing is illegal, because they're not physically stealing a solid product like a CD, they're just using a more efficient method of borrowing a mate's CD and ripping it. With that in mind, why would they switch to this service?
No music fan in their right mind would want their listening pleasure constantly interrupted by 10-second adverts. In a brief and unscientific straw poll, no-one in our offices said they'd suffer ads on every song just to get it for free.
In fairness, We7 could be used as a taster service. A user could sample the song from the site and then buy it from somewhere else without advertisements or disclaimers. But really, where's the business model within that? Two people in our office said they'd like something like this to sample music before buying it, though there are already hundreds of services like this, such as Last.fm or online CD stores such as Amazon, which plays clips of songs as pre-sale tasters (on the more high-profile releases).
We7 isn't in the business of offering a music-sampling service though. It aims to completely overhaul the online music world. Some interesting quotes from their site include: "[We7 is] set to create a music-download revolution", "We7 -- the online community that gives everyone what they want" and "[We7 will] help abolish piracy by making it no longer worthwhile to visit illegal and unsafe music and video Web sites". These claims are terribly misguided.
Feel free to try the service for yourself, but don't waste your time in thinking this is going to do anything positive to the industry, let alone "provide a direct route for bands and fans to form even closer relationships" -- that's what happens at the live music shows fans pay to go to after downloading music, legally or illegally. What We7 will actually do is fall flat on its face after a few disinterested blog posts like this and a few months of visits from curious passers-by. Maybe this is a service that will work in poorer countries or parts of the world where iTunes doesn't dominate the market, in which case we wish it all the best. -Nate Lanxon
Update: A previous version of this article stated that ads are automatically removed from tracks after four or five plays. The service instead offers users the option of downloading an ad-free version of the song after four weeks. We also neglected to mention the option to buy ad-free tracks. CNET.co.uk regrets the error.