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Free music, brought to you by....

KanyeLet's start by stating the obvious: SpiralFrog needs a new name. The company, which struck a groundbreaking deal with Universal Music Group (read the story by the Times' Charles Duhigg and Dawn Chmielewski here), plans an online music service that will let people download the record companies' songs for free, legally and in unlimited quantities. The catch is, each time a user downloaded a track, he/she would be shown a 90-second commercial. If all goes according to plan, the service will attract so many youthful (say, 18- to 34-year-old) users that advertising revenues will come pouring in, generating more than enough cash to satisfy the labels' and music publishers' demands for royalties (something between $4 and $9 per user each month). Strikes me as a long shot, but it's worth a try. After all, it would be the first free service to provide on-demand music with portability, something that other companies charge $11 to $15 a month for.

Now for the non-obvious point: SpiralFrog's service is made possible by digital rights management technology, and that's a good thing. I know, I know, there's a lot hatred for DRM, fueled by such things as "copy managed" music CDs, DVDs with ads that can't be skipped, and downloadable songs that can't be resold, loaned or given away. But when it's used the right way, DRM enables companies such as the unfortunately named SpiralFrog to offer new ways to consume media. In other words, it can expand consumers' abilities as well as reining them in.

Too bad there aren't more examples of DRM as an enabler instead of a limiter. When I say that to Hollywood executives, though, they invariably say, "What about the DVD?" The studios would never have agreed to sell high-quality digital versions of their movies if it weren't for a DRM that deterred copying. Of course, the locks were picked not long after DVDs debuted, but the system (backed forcefully by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act) still stops most third parties from making products that exploit the breach - for good or for bad. Just as 321 Studios.

Much of the early criticism of SpiralFrog's plans has focused on what Microsoft's DRM will disable. The songs won't play on an iPod. Your downloads will stop working after a few weeks unless you watch more ads on the SpiralFrog site. You won't be able to burn the tracks to a CD. Those are real issues that will affect SpiralFrog's chances, and yet such complaints seem to miss the big picture. This is about enabling people to enjoy music for free while still generating a recurring stream of revenue.

Personally, I think it's great that SpiralFrog is trying another business model that's closer to the information-wants-to-be-free mentality of the Web, just as Napster and Rhapsody are doing (and Kazaa and Qtrax plan to do, p2p-style). In the long term, a service that requires users to download music may not make as much sense as one that streams songs from an online jukebox. After all, don't we all expect wireless Internet access to be ubiquitous within a decade? In the interim, though, SpiralFrog stands as the only company (so far) trying to offer free music that you can take with you wherever you go. It doesn't have to succeed to have an impact; in fact, its most important contribution (assuming it gets off the ground) may be in adjusting the labels' expectations for what their music is worth online. Here's hoping the company's deals with the labels won't lead it to burden the service with more commercials than music fans can bear. Not working with Everyone's Favorite Portable Device is handicap enough.

The photo of Universal Music (and, someday, SpiralFrog) artist Kanye West was taken by Leif R. Jansson for EPA.


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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