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Digital Music Arms Race: MSN Joins the Fray

The arms race to lure music-loving clients is heating up at the moment: First Google gets a music service, and now MSN does too. MSN's download service launches tomorrow, and Microsoft's schmoozed all four big record labels to help it get off the ground.

msn music

Deals with EMI, Warner Music, Universal and Sony BMG mean that MSN Music will go live with over a million tracks—a tenth of what iTunes offers, but still nothing to be sniffed at. The number is likely to go up over the months as smaller and independent labels are signed up. It'll sit in the Music segment of MSN's new homepage, and runs on exactly the same tech as Microsoft uses to power Zune's store (though the two systems are definitely separate). The tracks are 192kbps encoded in MP3 or WMA format, and are DRM-free.

Microsoft's being a little tricky with the pricing—at its U.K. launch you can only buy credits in groups of ten for £7.99, with a credit being good for one track—but it seems like pretty much any other music download service that's already out there, like iTunes or Amazon's. There is one clever twist though—you can actually stream most of the track catalog to your PC for free, which Microsoft is making work by having embedded graphic ads in the custom player app you have to use to access the streams.

That's actually quite clever, since it lets Microsoft cover two different markets at once—downloadable tracks like in iTunes, and streaming music like Spotify or Pandora. But how is MSN trying to differentiate its offerings from all the other ways you can access digital music online? The answer is it probably isn't going to. Microsoft can't really hope to make serious inroads into a business that's absolutely dominated by Apple—instead it's probably trying to make a reasonable profit from habitual MSN users who will occasionally buy or stream some music while they're at the site.

MSN's executive producer Peter Bale pretty much confirms this with his description of the new service: "We think reading about music and listening to music are two halves of the same thing and we wanted to offer MSN users access to a competitive download to own service." The main thrust being why leave MSN and login to iTunes to buy a track when you can do it all in one place?

Will this work? It's impossible to tell—the marketplace is becoming increasingly crowded, and MSN Music store isn't doing anything particularly revolutionary. Its name is a draw, of course, and it'll likely see a fair amount of traffic just because of this. But it'll have to innovate some time soon if its to keep relevant, as there're only going to be more competition joining the battle for music fans as time goes by. And there's one last thing—quite where the rumored MSN/MySpace partnership fits into this is anyone's guess.

[Via the Telegraph]