Real's New Rhapsody Adds File Sharing

UPDATED Nearly two weeks ago, RealNetworks promised to reveal a "groundbreaking initiative in digital music," and today, the company showed its hand. Real unveiled a new version of its Rhapsody digital music store that will provide users with free monthly sampling and permit them to share their music with others - legally.

Real has thrown open its doors to anyone who wants to listen to digital music with a new tier of service called Rhapsody 25. With Rhapsody 25, anyone in the United States can listen to 25 full tracks per month with unrestricted use of the jukebox software's added features. If a track resonates with a user, they may go ahead and purchase the music at ala carte pricing.

Going beyond standard online music stores, downloaded tracks can be shared with other users, but not as they are with peer-to-peer programs. Instead, the recipient is sent a specially crafted e-mail from a Rhapsody user that contains a playlist with embedded URLs. These URLs are linked back to Real's servers which will stream the music with DRM (digital rights management) in place to prevent unlawful use.

Recipients who do not have Rhapsody installed will be prompted to download the software, a requirement for playback. RealNetworks spokesperson Matt Graves told BetaNews that the tactic was, "Straight up viral marketing." Users may try out Rhapsody without, "laying down a credit card," said Graves. "We wanted to set the bar low to use legal music services."

Paid music downloads are encoded with Real's proprietary AAC format and subscription downloads are secured with Microsoft's "Janus" secure-clock DRM technology. Janus is commonly used by digital music stores with subscription pricing models including Napster and Virgin Digital.

Prior to Rhapsody 25, Rhapsody was strictly a members-only subscription service. Now, subscribers may choose two premium tiers in addition to the basic Rhapsody 25 service: Rhapsody Unlimited and Rhapsody To Go.

Rhapsody Unlimited places no restrictions on the amount of music users can download onto their PC hard drive and users may pick tracks from a library of over 1 million songs. Music that is downloaded may be listened to offline, but customers are technically leasing the music and do not retain ownership. The songs will not play back if the user's subscription lapses.

Other benefits of the "unlimited" subscription are full access to Real's premium Internet radio, streaming music videos, and a ten percent discount on purchased music downloads priced at 89 cents US per track and $8.99 USD per album. Current Rhapsody All Access subscribers may upgrade to Rhapsody Unlimited at no charge, and a monthly subscription runs $9.99 USD.

For users that want to listen away from their PC, Real is offering Rhapsody To Go. The aptly named Rhapsody To Go is a portable subscription plan that subscribers can use to transfer music downloads -- both purchased and "leased" -- to a supported digital music player. As with Rhapsody Unlimited, all downloads without ownership rights will no longer be playable when a user's subscription is discontinued. The service costs $14.99 USD per month, the same price as Napster to Go.

Real has partnered with Google and Chrysler to offset some of the music licensing costs, which have not been disclosed.

Comparing the announcement to the advent of streaming audio on the Web, Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks said that, "With the new Rhapsody, millions of people can now experience and share digital music -- legally, and with no strings attached. We think the new Rhapsody will transform digital music."

Real is kicking off the re-launch of Rhapsody with a star studded performance by Good Charlotte at Radio City Music Hall in New York, along with other promotional activities.

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