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Listen carefully: it's the battle for your ear

Listen carefully: it's the battle for your ear

Portable players have a new rival, pulling music out of the ether like radio but with you in charge of the set list.

In the 1980s, Sony's Walkman made our personal music collections portable. The most successful consumer product of this decade has surely been Apple's iPod, which lets us carry those collections on the device itself. But the next game-changing trend in the consumption of music could well bring to an abrupt end the concept of owning music. Known as streaming, it allows users to access huge databases of music stored by third parties as and when they want without ever owning the songs they choose to play.

Industry experts say that although streaming is coming off a very small base at present, in the longer term it will change our listening habits.

Social networking outfit MySpace has just launched a music streaming service in Australia that is part-owned by all four major record labels - EMI, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group. It has also formed partnerships with large digital aggregators of independent music including The Orchard and IODA.

MySpace Music is funded through advertising so access to the content is free as long as you're prepared to listen to the occasional plug between songs.

It will also be partially funded by e-commerce partnerships, which will initially mean offering listeners the opportunity to buy songs they like through Apple's iTunes but will eventually be extended to include concert tickets, T-shirts, posters and other merchandise.

With more than 5 million bands worldwide having profiles on the site, the sheer volume of music it will make available is difficult to comprehend, as growing numbers of artists allow access to their entire back catalogue of work.

In addition to songs, artists can post music videos, photos, tour dates and blogs.

"It's not about having as much music as you can fit onto an iPod," MySpace Music's executive director of business development, Nick Love, says.

"If you have an internet connection, here's a legal way to consume one of the world's largest music catalogues online.

"We are aggregating eyeballs for the fans of a band and making all of the various products that are on the web available from one spot.

"It's the next evolution of how music is consumed by the public and how bands can distribute and monetise their content."

Although it has lost the social networking battle in recent times to Facebook and Twitter, MySpace has been a big hit in the music industry. U2's latest album was available for streaming on the site before it reached record shops and there have been exclusive offers with other big-name attractions including Coldplay, Oasis and Muse.

MySpace is hoping its music streaming service will bring back some of the users who have abandoned it as a social networking site and convince others who have never visited before to give it a try.

"I'm a big believer this is a great way to attract new and lapsed MySpace users to the platform," Love says.

"They might be on other platforms for social networking, but for keeping their finger on the pulse of what's happening in the music industry it's a pretty compelling proposition.

"I remember buying vinyl when I was young but, as with most people my age with kids, those albums are stacked away in boxes under the staircase. I've gone through and found classic albums [to stream] that meant something to me from my teen or university days and it brought back pretty amazing memories."

Since attracting 4.2 million unique visitors in September last year when the service was launched in the United States, comScore estimates that almost 19 million visited MySpace Music last month. One year after its debut in the United States, Australia and New Zealand are next to get access.

But streaming is also available through a range of other services being offered by large multinational companies including software giant Microsoft and mobile phone maker Nokia as well as a host of start-ups such as Spotify and Last.fm.

The Nokia Music Store was launched in April last year and, in addition to letting users buy albums or individual tracks, it enabled streaming for $10 a month.

Streaming is also available through the Comes With Music service that Nokia brought to these shores early this year. This gives mobile phone customers who buy certain handsets the opportunity to sign up for access to 10 million tracks.

But it has had limited success in developed markets and the US launch has been pushed back to 2010 for unspecified reasons.

Microsoft has yet to launch its streaming service in Australia but has gone live in the United Kingdom. The software giant claims its offering is similar to that of UK-based peer-to-peer sensation Spotify, which is also available in Sweden (where it was developed), Finland, France, Norway and Spain.

Like MySpace Music, the Spotify model is ad-supported and users get free access to music as long as they are prepared to listen to about two minutes of advertising between songs in every hour. But it also offers a premium version where users can listen without advertising for a monthly fee of £9.99 ($17.77).

Although it offers listeners the choice of more than 4.5 million songs, the Spotify library has some notable omissions - including AC/DC, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Red Hot Chili Peppers - because some bands have not yet agreed to let their music be used.

There are also no details yet of when Spotify will be available in Australia.

While streaming may well change the way we consume music in the long term, especially for the younger generations, broadband plans are likely to slow rapid adoption in the short term.

Consumer technology analyst Peter Blasina estimates the average music album will consume about 500 megabytes. This means listening to just 10 albums would use up a 5GB monthly data allowance. This would lead to service speeds being throttled back or a hefty bill at the end of the month for excess usage.

"Where it really comes undone is if you stream in the same way as you listen to radio," Blasina says. "If have it on as background music, you will use a huge chunk of your bandwidth.

"A growing number of people will start looking for unmetered plans in the next six months to access content."

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