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from the L.A. Times

Cricket tries to Muve music collections to cellphones

Samsung Suede_frontMobile phone carrier Cricket is set to unveil a beguiling new approach to music subscription services: unlimited music downloads to a phone for a flat monthly fee.

Set to be announced Monday, Cricket's Muve Music initiative recasts an idea the music industry has been trying to popularize for a decade through services such as Rhapsody and Napster, which offered unlimited downloads to a computer and selected MP3 players for upwards of $10 a month. Such services never attained mass acceptance, in large part because consumers didn't like the idea of paying month after month for tracks they'd lose the moment they canceled their subscriptions.

What may help get Cricket past that hurdle is the fact that no one seems to mind paying every month for cellphone service. Muve Music will be bundled into a $55 plan that also includes unlimited calling, text messaging, e-mail and Web browsing — $10 more per month than a comparable plan without music downloads, yet cheaper than the typical smartphone plan offered by rival carriers.

The most notable aspect of Muve may be that it's designed from scratch as a service for phones, optimized for a mobile network. It's not an add-on to a PC-based service. In fact, users never need to use a computer to get the most out of Muve. All the functions — discovering music, building playlists, creating ringtones, sharing songs — were designed to be done on a cellphone. That sets Muve apart from the mobile versions of other subscription services, which offer a more limited and less satisfying experience than they provide on a PC.

The major record labels ...

... have long hoped that the cellphone would become the 21st century version of the CD player, a device that inspires people to spend copious amounts of money on recorded music. But despite the (temporary) success of ringtones and analysts' outsized projections for global revenue, the U.S. market has been slow to take off.

Streaming services have done well on smartphones, but the advertising revenue they generate — a projected $44 million this year, according to eMarketer — is a drop in the industry's bucket. And phone users haven't been wild about mobile song downloading services, in part because they charged such premium prices when they launched.

The launch of Muve illustrates how the major labels' focus has shifted from transactions to revenue per user, said Michael Nash, an executive vice president at Warner Music Group. Under the deal with Cricket, the music industry gets paid a set number of dollars per subscriber per month, regardless of how much the subscriber downloads. But the money gets allocated among labels and music publishers according to the popularity of their works.

The labels had started down that road with Nokia's Comes with Music offering, which included the right to unlimited downloads in the price of a phone. But Comes with Music fizzled before it reached the U.S., which Nash attributed to Nokia not having "the right carrier partnerships." 

Maybe so, but Comes with Music also was freighted with digital rights management technology that effectively locked the tracks onto the computer or phone that downloaded them. Muve has a similar issue — the service will work only with selected phones, and the tracks will be wrapped in DRM that stops them from being copied to other devices. The only compatible model that will be available when the service launches in January is the $199 Samsung Suede.

Building a music library on a phone isn't as bad an idea as it may once have seemed, though. As the iPhone demonstrated, consumers have become comfortable with the idea of using their phone as an MP3 player. And just as an iPhone can be connected to stereos, car audio systems and boom boxes, so, too, can the Suede — wirelessly (through Bluetooth) or through its headphone jack. So even though the DRM used by Muve will lock songs onto the phone, they won't exactly be confined there.

Cricket plans to make the service available on more phone models over time. It also has designed Muve to let subscribers keep the tracks they download as they move from phone to phone on Cricket's service, and to preserve subscribers' collections if they let their contracts lapse temporarily.

Muve may also be helped by the demographics of Cricket's 4.5 million customers. Jeff Toig, a Cricket vice president, said about half of the customers for Cricket's prepaid services have no computer or broadband at home, and a little more than half earn less than $50,000 a year. "They're young and they're ethnic," Toig said, and they have a large appetite for music services. For example, when Cricket started selling ringback tones about three years ago, Toig said, it soon was generating more revenue from that service than any competitor save Verizon.

The challenge for Cricket is to make Muve more compelling than their customers' current outlets for music, whether it be CDs or file-sharing networks. Offering unlimited downloads, ringtones and ringback tones is a good start. The technology developed by Wilshire Media Group makes it easy to navigate through the Muve library and switch from function to function. There are also several different tools to help people discover music, including one that makes personalized recommendations based on what a user downloads and plays.

Users can also discover tracks by looking at other Muve subscribers' collections and favorite tracks. Wilshire Media co-founder Brendon Cassidy said there is a mini social network within Muve, one that lets people share what they're downloading, playing and discussing with other subscribers. But they can't share songs in the peer-to-peer sense; instead, they can send links to tracks that other subscribers can play.

One thing missing from Muve, though, is the ability to stream music from the service's online library. It's downloads only, Toig said, because that makes better use of Cricket's network. 

— Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

Samsung Suede image courtesy of Cricket

 
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