The biggest news for music lovers this week was the death of Waylon Jennings, one of the best country singers of the 1970s. But the scent of death is hovering over two more members of the music industry as well: Pressplay and MusicNet, the big record companies' latest attempts at online distribution. These enterprises will persist a while longer, of course, but their chances of succeeding, at least with their present business models, seem low.
Pressplay is tied to Sony and Universal, while MusicNet was born of an even mightier corporate combination: BMG, EMI, Zomba, RealNetworks, AOL Time Warner, and the castrated shell of Napster. While controversial "peer to peer" swapmeets like Morpheus and Audiogalaxy offer an incredibly diverse selection of music, users of Pressplay and MusicNet are limited to the member companies' catalogs. Nor is that music offered on particularly attractive terms. Pressplay's complicated system, for example, allows listeners to download only a certain number of songs per month—and then lose access to all their past downloads if they miss a payment. (You are allowed to burn some songs—but only some!—to CDs.) There are further restrictions: Neither service, for example, allows its users to listen to their downloaded music on MP3 players. And, as a cartoon character once remarked, there are still a few bugs in the system.
There are businesses out there making money selling music on the Web. The big record companies might join them one day, if they stopped behaving like monopolies and met their rivals with real competition instead of endless lawsuits—and dropped their airline-like suspicion that their customers are actually their enemies.