Startup Takes On ITunes With Free, Ad-Supported Service

After nearly five years of development, a delayed beta launch, the flight of its management team, and a $3.2 million deal with Universal Music Group, the free, ad-supported SpiralFrog online music service finally launches Monday.

I came to a startling conclusion while testing the service last week. Despite my having mocked it in the past, SpiralFrog does in fact make sense because digital rights management is so restrictive that any music it "protects" should be free to download.

While others in the music industry move away from digital rights management, or DRM, SpiralFrog founder Joe Mohen says "the time is right" for SpiralFrog to debut, because internet advertising has become more effective, the majority of the service's under-30 target demographic has broadband, and record labels' declining sales have rendered them amenable to the ad-supported music model. He estimates that the service will need 10 million users per month in order to succeed (i.e., make money while paying labels' licensing fees).

Of course, none of this means a thing unless the service works from a user's point of view. I tested SpiralFrog last week to find out whether it's worth your while.

Registration is fairly quick, requiring a name, age, gender and ZIP code. Mac users can't use the service at all; Firefox users will probably need to install a Windows Media Player plug-in that requires all other browser windows to be closed (ugh). The site also requires Flash 9 and SpiralFrog's download manager, which allows a Download Queue window to follow you around the site as you choose stuff to grab.

SpiralFrog's catalog only contains about 770,000 songs, while iTunes boasts more than 6 million. SpiralFrog only has deals with one major label (Universal) and a smattering of smaller indie and regional labels (plus digital music distributors Ioda and The Orchard). I managed to find full albums from Sonic Youth, Pulp, Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M., The Velvet Underground and some other heavy hitters, but was frustrated to find lots of artists listed whose songs weren't actually available.

The situation could improve somewhat by the end of the year. SpiralFrog's label-relations head Jennifer Link said that no label she has approached has rejected the idea of making a deal with SpiralFrog outright, and the site already accepts artist submissions (with an upload feature to be added later). By the end of the year, Mohen estimates, the site will host 2 million or so tracks. Still, unless SpiralFrog can add -- at least -- all of the major labels, its service can only function as a secondary music source.

[Story continues here.]

More Post From The Web