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Free music

I’m in the awkward position of writing a column today that kind of contradicts the one I wrote last week.

As you may recall, I railed against the pervasiveness of advertising in our society, complaining that you can’t go anywhere without being bombarded with ads. Of course, I also admitted that my livelihood as a broadcaster and newspaper columnist depends on ads, so I obviously don’t want to see them disappear completely.

So now I read that SpiralFrog.com plans to launch an ad-supported music download service and instead of complaining, I find myself cautiously cheering.

I’m pleased that the New York company plans to give away access to about 700,000 tracks in exchange for having to look at ads while you download the music. I haven’t seen the way they plan to implement the service but if they can pull it off so that users aren’t terribly inconvenienced, I say go for it.

There are dangers but from what I have seen, I’m not too concerned. One danger would be if they embedded ads within the music or even before or after each selection. I don’t’ think people listening to music on their computers or portable players would tolerate ads. If you want that, listen to commercial radio. Another danger would be if advertisers started having more impact on music that is recorded. There is already an enormous corporate influence in the business – executives in New York, Los Angeles and London have a lot to say about the type of music that is distributed – but that’s true with broadcasting and print publishing as well.

Although I’m not one of SpiralFrog’s beta testers, I have tested out another ad-supported music service that I was pretty happy with. Ruckus.com offers free ad-supported access to more than 2 million tracks but only for college students. When I tried the service several months ago, I noticed that I only had to look at ads during the download process. Once the music was on my PC, I could listen to it in the Ruckus player or Windows Media Player without having to see or hear advertising. I could also listen to it on any PlaysforSure portable device, again without having to hear ads.

As with most music you buy, the files from Ruckus – and soon SpiralFrog – are encoded with the hated digital rights management (DRM) which means the companies, not you, control what you get to do with the music. Both services require that you sign in at least once a month to validate your membership, and if you have the music copied to a portable device, you have to sync that device with the PC so it, too, knows you’re legit.

And because Ruckus and SpiralFrog are embedded with a Windows Media DRM, their music won’t play on the Apple iPod, which dominates the portable music player market.

So, while this is all a good step in the right direction, it’s still far from what this music consumer wants. What I want is music that is free from restrictions, regardless of whether I pay for it with money or by looking at ads. I want to be able to listen to it where and when I want and on whatever device I choose.

Until that happens, services like SpiralFrog and Ruckus will be interesting but short of compelling. These are steps worth taking but baby steps nonetheless.

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