In search of the perfect paid preview service, overture

For a person who does most of his listening on a software media player, I have not adopted the ala carte model of digital downloading. As I’ve expounded before, the labels want people to purchase the same content on multiple formats, and I don’t want to drop cash on a format which can essentially be derived from an existing one.

In short, why would I pay for a bunch of files, when I can create them myself and have a backup at the same time?

The economics of such a practice, however, are becoming increasingly moot. CDs haven’t come down in price — at least anything not on Universal Music — and if the only place in which I’ll spin a disc is my car, is it really worth the investment? I’m also going to start addressing some personal finance issues, which makes buying CDs seem extravagant.

CDs are so in trouble if ever I get around to connecting my iPod to the car stereo. (It’s an old factory unit not equipped to connect by default.)

In the years since paid digital downloads have become something of a norm, I’ve developed certain … perceptions about digital formats. I’ll own an album only as digital files if I don’t like it enough to get a CD. The digital file, in essence, becomes the preview copy that may eventually become a full-fledged purchase.

The subscription model of eMusic pretty much fuels this perception. I use eMusic as a paid preview service — a means by which I can live with an album for a time before committing to purchasing it. The criteria for whether I want to purchase something is really simple: Do I like this album enough to want to listen to it during rush hour traffic?

A few eMusic downloads have turned into actual purchases, but a lot of them don’t.

Of course, I could just depend on illicit means to acquire "preview" copies, but as thorough as the Evil Sharing Networks may be, they aren’t omniscient. Find very many Morton Feldman albums on BitTorrent? And honestly, the culture of sharing can get so codified, it takes on the patina of organized religion.

As much as I like eMusic, it has two blind sides. First, the subscription model itself encourages gluttony. If you don’t use your downloads in a particular month, they’re gone. Some months, I just don’t want to get anything. Second, the reliance on non-major label content has an empirical limit. If I want to get something from Nonesuch or Deutsche Grammophon, it won’t be on eMusic.

The subscription model, however, is far more amenable to a paid preview paradigm than the ala carte model. (I’ve done the math.) So what can I do if I want to pay to preview major label content cost effectively?

In terms of subscription services with major label content, there’s Rhapsody and Napster. Another site with major label content but no subscription service is All three sites allow for online streaming but include ala carte purchasing of individual files.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be checking out each service. Right now, I’ve been using, and it’s appealing to my inner bean counter. My evaluation of Rhapsody and Napster may not be as thorough, depending on how much cash I can expend on such research. I hope to write about each, but I can tell you now, Lala has been occupying the lion’s share of my attention.

In the end, I hope to find a service that addresses my needs for paid previews. I don’t mind paying a few cents to figure out whether I want to commit to a CD. It’s better than dropping $20 on a CD and hoping it’s any good. I think the term for that is "gambling".