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There are two types of people online: those who use AOL and those who despise it. Even though we have some beefs with the online behemoth, we can't dismiss the company's staying power. Now, in addition to offering Internet access to 35 million subscribers, AOL is hawking a for-fee music subscription service called MusicNet. Once part of RealNetworks' SuperPass and backed by that company as well as EMI Records and Bertelsmann, MusicNet could have been a convenient, safe way for AOLers to download, listen to, and burn music. However, Listen.com's Rhapsody offers a more enjoyable listening experience. Before you can use MusicNet, you'll have to sign up with AOL and install the software. Additionally, you must run AOL in order to download, listen to, or burn music. We felt handcuffed to the service and annoyed that AOL was sucking up our computing resources, but if you run AOL all the time anyway, this won't be a factor. Worse, in order for the service to work, you also have to install RealPlayer on your system (it comes bundled with AOL 7.0 and higher). If you're already a member of AOL, simply plug in your username and password, and look for the MusicNet sign-up box or run a search for the service. Currently, a link to MusicNet is conspicuously absent from AOL 8.0's Music channel menu--so much for seamless integration. While other people on your AOL account can share your membership, only one user is allowed on MusicNet at a time.
Once you're a card-carrying AOLer, you can choose from three different subscription plans. Just like competing plans from Pressplay, Listen.com, and eMusic, each has its own set of limitations. For $3.95 per month, you can download 20 songs and listen to 20 streams. The $8.95 Standard plan--by far, the most attractive--gets you unlimited downloads and streams, and if you're subscribing for the first time, the Standard service comes free for the first 30 days. Want to burn songs to CD, too? You'll pay for it. For $17.95, you can burn a mere 10 songs per month in addition to unlimited streaming and downloading. A $13.95 plan that offers à la carte burning is currently in the works, according to the company. And by the way--while the $8.95 fee is competitive with other music subscription services, it's in addition to your monthly AOL subscription costs.
The interface is pretty, but finding music can be frustrating.
You can't manually add tracks to your library without first assigning them to a playlist, which runs counter to how most of us work. Say, for example, you wanted to quickly create and burn a new playlist from the songs in your library for your friend Bob. Good luck; you can't create new playlists on the fly. You'll have to instead start all over and search for those files or else rename one of your old lists. We didn't have any problems downloading; tracks are automatically added to your library as you go, and they're also stored in a folder called AOL Downloads. Don't move them; the AOL media player will list them as missing.
And unlike most services which refer you to similar artists or suggest related music genres--especially important if you can't find any songs by an artist you like--MusicNet leaves you hanging. Unlike Rhapsody, AOL doesn't even bother to offer radio-station options. And if you do find tracks by your artist, you won't see any related artists links pop up--an omission we found hard to overlook. You can click the "Artist info on AOL" link from the Find Music section, but the information is bland and sometimes incomplete; by the time we drilled down, our curiosity waned. The What's New section of the client, which highlights emerging artists and notes catalog updates, is a nice addition, but sadly, the content is pretty thin. To be fair, AOL does do a good job implementing Parental Controls, a favorite feature among longtime AOLers. Songs with explicit lyrics are marked with a parental advisory. Given all the flaws in MusicNet, we're willing to bet big money that you'll need help files and technical support. You can directly access the well-written and easy-to-search online support files by clicking the Help tab located at the top right of the main screen. AOL does offer toll-free phone support from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. ET, seven days a week, but since the company didn't build the product, we had a hard time getting immediate, accurate assistance.