MP3tunes.com shuns digital rights management

Michael Robertson, MP3.com's outspoken founder, turns on his latest creation: a music download service that focuses on unsigned artists.

Matt Hines Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Matt Hines
covers business software, with a particular focus on enterprise applications.
Matt Hines
3 min read
MP3tunes.com introduced its digital music service on Wednesday, offering 300,000 songs at 88 cents each from mostly independent and unsigned artists.

As earlier reported, the new download service is the brainchild of Michael Robertson, current chief executive of Linux software company Linspire and Net-calling service SIPphone.

His creation of MP3.com in 1997 helped establish the online digital music business. MP3tunes.com said that its service works on any computer or portable digital music player, regardless of operating system, and that it will let customers permanently store previously purchased files on its Web site.

Robertson, known most recently for his high-profile court battle with Microsoft over the naming of Lindows, now known as Linspire, said MP3tunes.com will offer a distinct alternative to popular music services such as Apple Computer's iTunes by directly courting fans of Linux software and by shunning digital rights management (DRM) protection.

DRM technology has become a major selling point for sites such as iTunes in response to the music industry's assault on illegal file swapping.

The executive, who is CEO of MP3tunes.com, said the new company also plans to release a Linux-based "music appliance" that will let people access their music collections from other devices.

"Digital music sales make up less than 2 percent of the total music business because many consumers know they aren't really buying the music--they're renting it from a big corporation that controls what software, computer and portable devices they can use," Robertson said in a statement. "MP3tunes gives the consumers more value because they can use the music on all their computers and MP3 players--whatever brand they may have."

By offering customers the ability to play their music files on any sort of device, Robertson is hoping to challenge download sites that have taken a less open approach with their digital music services. Online music lovers have previously been forced to make sure that their MP3 player is compatible with a particular site. For instance, music from Microsoft's MSN Music store cannot be played directly on Apple's iPod.

Robertson is predicting that his strategy will be received as more "consumer friendly" and could triple digital music sales in a relatively short period of time.

Other features of the service include the free "music locker" for permanent storage of purchased songs, unlimited downloads of purchased titles, and the ability to listen to clips of songs before buying them.

While MP3tunes.com lacks the major label clout of its competitors, Robertson pointed to popular recording artists such as Linkin Park and Maroon 5 who were still relative unknowns when they first began posting material to MP3.com. He said that recording companies will eventually work with the site as they see how its strategy works.

"All new trends in music start with emerging artists and progressive-thinking labels who are most willing to try new approaches, which is where MP3tunes is focusing initially," Robertson said. "If music buyers come to MP3tunes, then ultimately forward-thinking labels will too."

Mike McGuire, an analyst at research firm Gartner, said that MP3tunes' first challenge will be getting consumers to go to the site and pay for downloads, an issue that he said is a struggle for every online music store other than iTunes at present. The lack of major label participation will make that battle even harder, according to the analyst.

McGuire believes the company's business plan has potential, but he said it may be some time before consumers appreciate features such DRM-free downloads or the ability to back up songs on the MP3tunes Web site.

"Having the opportunity to download content without DRM is something that could become really important to people as digital music moves out of the PC and into the living room," McGuire said. "People are not going to want to be told what they can or can't do with a piece of content they've already paid for. But I don't think the majority of consumers who are just getting started with music downloads are really concerned or aware of this issue, and those are the people the market is dependent upon for growth."

MP3.com was eventually purchased by News.com parent CNET Networks, from Vivendi Universal Net USA in November 2003. Vivendi used the company's technology to help launch Pressplay, the digital music subscription service it created in partnership with Sony Music Entertainment.