Which online music service is worth paying for? We rate the record labels' legal successors to Napster

By Brian Hiatt
August 28, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
Bono: Steve Granitz/WireImage.com

Which online music service is worth paying for?

The greatest thing about Napster wasn’t that it was free; it was that the now-defunct online music-swapping service had EVERYTHING. Offering obscure Grateful Dead bootlegs, the latest Nelly hits, and anything else you could want, Napster at its prime was a music fan’s dream and a record label exec’s nightmare (since it didn’t pay a dime to labels or artists, let alone obtain their permission).

Well, Napster’s been dead at the hands of lawsuit-wielding music companies since July 2001, replaced by inferior file-sharing services (Kazaa and WinMX are among the most popular) that the labels also have in their sights. And now, with labels threatening for the first time to sue individual file-swappers (yes, that could mean you), the time seems right for online music fans to go straight. So what’s out there? You still can’t pay your way into a Napster-like cornucopia, but the legit services are getting better all the time. So here’s a guide to legal music on the Net (sorry, Mac users — all but EMusic are for Windows only).

Rhapsody
Cost $9.99 a month for unlimited streaming music
Tunes Rhapsody is the only service with licenses from all five major labels, as well as some indies, which makes it the leading contender. There are more than 214,000 songs, including albums from such A-listers as Britney Spears, U2, Elvis Presley, and Bruce Springsteen.
Missing links Due to licensing quirks, you won’t find music from the likes of Madonna, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and some other big names.
Coolest part In addition to offering the largest music catalog, Rhapsody is the best-organized and least bug-laden service. Its stable proprietary software offers a Web browser-like experience, organizing music by genre, artist and album. Unlike the other services, which just provide a list of songs, this one lists each artist’s work by album, complete with artwork. Plus, Rhapsody serves up a steady stream of informational tidbits that tie in with the music you play — spin an alternate take of Van Morrison’s ”Brown-Eyed Girl,” and you get a reminder that the tune’s original title was ”Brown-Skinned Girl.”
Biggest bummer Rhapsody is currently a streaming-only service — which means that all songs are tethered to your computer (though you can hook your ‘puter up to your stereo), and those who don’t have broadband are pretty much out of luck. Also, the newest music (i.e. Springsteen’s ”The Rising”) takes a while to get onto the service, even for supported artists.
Bottom line If you have a fast connection and decent speakers, Rhapsody is as close as the music industry has come to Napster without the guilt. As the aptly named service adds more tunes, it may well become a must-have for music fanatics.
Grade B+

MusicNet
Cost $9.99 a month; access is limited to 100 downloads and 100 streams (with extra fees for additional music)
Tunes MusicNet offers songs from three of the five major labels: Warner Music Group (which, like EW.com, is owned by AOL Time Warner), BMG, and EMI. That makes it possible to find artists ranging from Missy Elliott to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Missing links There’s nothing from the two missing major labels (Universal and Sony) — which means no access to Billy Joel, Sum-41, and many others.
Coolest part Um, at least they’re trying.
Biggest bummer RealOne’s MusicNet software is still in beta, so it’s prone to crash and packed with infuriating bugs. The organization of the music is poor, and the limitation of 100 downloads and streams is wrongheaded — does cable TV count how many shows you watch?
Bottom line Don’t bother — yet.
Grade C-

Pressplay
Cost $9.95 a month for unlimited streaming and downloads; $17.95 a month for unlimited streaming and downloads, plus 10 ”portable downloads” a month — i.e., songs that you can burn onto a CD, or transfer to some portable devices (you can pay for additional songs)
Tunes Pressplay offers music from three of the five major labels (Sony, Universal, and EMI) — so artists range from Bob Dylan to Ozzy Osbourne to ‘N Sync.
Missing links Pretty much everything that MusicNet offers is absent here, except for the EMI content.
Coolest part Unlike its competitors, Pressplay offers that CD-burning option, which those who still like their music in physical form will definitely appreciate.
Biggest bummer The Microsoft digital-rights-management software that comes with the service is problematic; when we tried it recently, the DRM prevented us from hearing any music at all. That’s probably a bit more security than they had in mind.
Bottom line Shows some promise, but still not enough.
Grade C

Emusic
Cost $9.99 a month for unlimited MP3 downloads (with a 12-month commitment)
Tunes Underdog EMusic offers a quirky selection, with little major-label product but oodles of cool indie music. Thanks to a deal with Epitaph Records, both albums by garage-rockers-of-the-moment the Hives were on EMusic well before the hype began, and they stayed there afterward. Other cool downloads include the Matador catalog, with faves such as Pavement and Guided by Voices.
Missing links Forget about almost anything that’s currently on the charts.
Coolest part Unlike every other legal service, EMusic offers name-brand music in good, old-fashioned MP3 format. That means you can rip the music onto CDs, put it on your iPod, and e-mail it around — it’s yours to play with as you see fit. (Can’t do that on other services, which have ultra-secure formats.) Plus, no proprietary software is required; you can download the music straight from EMusic’s website.
Bottom line For fans of indie-rock and jazz — or anyone with an iPod to fill — Emusic is an appealing alternative.
Grade B-

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