Charles Arthur on Technology

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The Independent Online

Would you pay £8 per month to listen to Classic FM, the stolidly unthreatening classical music radio station? I'd wager not, even if it meant getting rid of the ads. Yet BT Openworld is gambling that after we've lashed out £25 per month on a broadband link, you and I will cough up another £8 monthly to sign up for something similar – its classical music download service, hosted by Classical.com, a UK-based start-up.

Presently, Classical.com says that it has thousands of people signed up or trialling it; you don't even need a high-speed link, as you can sign up even if you only have a standard 56K dialup. Lucky you. That will qualify you to download 10 tracks per month (in MP3 or Windows Media format) which can be burnt on to a CD, and to listen to streaming tracks chosen from your own playlist, chosen from all those on Classical.com's offerings. "In the future, our children or our children's children will be happy to stream or download music," Roger Press, the chief executive of Classical.com, told me.

At which I had to laugh – quite loudly. Our children's children? Why wait? I've been doing it for ages. I've got four words in reply to BT Openworld: "free", "Gnutella", and "internet radio".

The point is that if you've got broadband, then one must presume you're the sort of person savvy enough to find a Gnutella client such as Audiogalaxy or Limewire. Which means that you'll be able to get those downloads for free.

Chris Lane, BT Openworld's music honcho, insist that the tie-up is better than Gnutella because "the Gnutella user experience is appalling... downloads don't connect". But when you've got a few hundred to choose from even one in 10 will still do.

But I tried the Classical.com downloads, having navigated my way past playlists with titles such as "Sensual Strings", "The Passion of Mahler" and "Music for the house-plants". In general, I found the site (http://classical.btopen world.com) sluggish, and the range of music limited. Downloading a track was hardly a cakewalk either, requiring five different screens; at least it came quickly, taking about 30 seconds for a six-megabyte file.

The other method of sampling is internet radio. There are thousands of stations out there, streaming music and broadcasting a genre you like. I can recommend Radio Paradise for its eclectic yet broad range in modern music.

Those services will get us listening to more music, and discovering artists whose CDs we might buy, and they already exist, for free, not £96 annually.

So naturally the music industry in the US is looking to kill both of them off. Gnutella systems faces legal challenges and internet radio faces a new charging regime that would effectively bankrupt almost all but the biggest. I'd happily give £8 per month for the fighting fund to stop that. It might be the prelude to something even better.

network@independent.co.uk

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