Urge Music Service from MTV Networks

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You've probably already heard the news: MTV Networks has launched the Urge music download service to challenge Apple's iTunes.

Like most technologically savvy music lovers, I'm a dedicated iTunes customer and an iPod addict. But iTunes has yet to offer the tasting-menu option known as subscription downloads, that allows you to download all you want for a monthly fee, keeping the songs playable as long as you remain a subscriber. Last year, subscription-content privileges were extended to portable devices, but Apple still had no reason to fear: the software-and-player combinations paled in comparison to the iTunes/iPod powerhouse. While this remains mostly true, Urge is the best reason to date why Apple should avoid resting on its laurels.

Another reason that subscription downloads didn't totally catch on is that ownership has its privileges. When Jack Johnson releases an album, I don't want to rent it; I want it paid off and mine to keep. A subscription is a better way to hook you up with songs you weren't planning to buy. But for this to work, you must be introduced to a steady stream of music you didn't know you wanted.

Enter MTV. That is, MTV Networks, which also includes VH1 and CMT. Unlike Napster, RealNetworks and Yahoo!, these guys are in the business of picking new music and getting listeners to like it. The key to the whole service, the thing that makes automatic sense, is that you don't use Urge to download albums or songs, but rather, to download playlists.

Of course you can download albums — Urge has as many as any other subscription service — but why bother? In my first foray, I grabbed celebrity playlists from Mike Myers, Sarah Silverman and Matt Costa, plus a 17-track "Must-Haves" list featuring 1970s singer-songwriters. "Must-Haves," which range from club anthems to Christian rap, are a shorter type of comprehensive playlist. So-called "Super Playlists" contain between 100 and 200 songs, and are labeled by genre (pop, country, etc.).

MTV wasn't just satisfied with static playlists, so it created a series of musical feeds. Halfway between Internet radio and RSS, it's a playlist that changes from day to day. Feeds can be artist-based — an "auto mix" for Eminem includes his work plus songs by other rappers in his league. Some feeds are collections of tracks from the network's shows, such as TRL, VH1's Best Music Week Ever and CMT's Studio 330 Sessions. Urge even includes the Informer blog series, with people writing about music and using downloadable playlists to illustrate their discussions.

Microsoft says Urge represents its closest collaboration yet with a content provider, and the service launches with a beta version of Windows Media Player 11. I had hoped that meant fewer gremlins in the system, but I have already encountered a few. When downloading albums, some songs just will not come, no matter how much you call. The message that appears is one of my favorites: "This (error) can occur when another program or operating system component encounters a problem but does not communicate the nature of the problem to the Player." Since all of the software is Microsoft's, I can only assume that the ill communication is happening in Redmond.

If you have a music player such as iriver's brand-new 2GB clix ($200) — or another player listed on Microsoft's PlaysForSure website under the "Subscription Enabled" header — you can set up Urge to auto-synch playlists and feeds, but these players will never threaten the iPod. No, Urge poses a threat to Apple because of the MTV brand and because MTV closely works with youth-oriented cell-phone carriers like Virgin Mobile USA. When the circle is complete, it won't be an MP3 player that gets synched with your TRL feed, but a phone with 2GB of flash memory. Did somebody say iPhone?