In the battle for your musical dollar, two models have emerged.
The first, used by Apple's iPod and iTunes music store, is to buy your tunes as you go -- and keep them forever. In this model, you pay, say 99 cents for each song; then you own them outright. The good news is that you never have to go back to the well -- as long as your files are intact. The bad news is that it is expensive to build your music library. To fill your iPod with 5,000 songs would cost you around $5,000. If you lose your song files, you have to buy them again.
David Radin, a free-lance writer for the Post-Gazette and business consultant, is co-author of Digital Music Made Easy. You can contact him at www.megabyteminute.com.
The other model, used by Yahoo!, Napster, MusicMatch and others, allows you to subscribe to a service that, for a fixed monthly fee, typically $5 to $20, gives you access to an entire catalog of music on your computer or non-iPod portable music device. This model costs a lot less to give you access to a lot of music. But, unless you purchase specific tracks, you'll lose the ability to listen to them when your subscription expires.
But with a few well-placed strategies, you can leverage the subscription model to make your days and nights more musical -- at home, at the office, or on the road.
First, make sure that you have the type of service that suits your needs. If you only plan to listen on your home or office computer, get a plan that covers your desktop computer only. If you plan to take your music with you, you'll need a subscription plan that allows you to move your music files to your portable player. That may cost a few extra bucks a month.
Then take advantage of the hybrid nature of most subscription services. They often allow you to purchase tracks the same way as you would from Apple's iTunes. For 88 cents to 99 cents a song, you can purchase your favorite songs so you can burn them onto CD, use them as ringtones and put them on any system you own -- legally. Yet, you still can use your subscription for most of your music, eliminating the requirement to spend huge amounts of money on the 99-cent files.
If you travel a lot, and want to make sure that you have your music on your portable player for extended periods, you need to pay attention to the expiration dates on your subscription, and the way that you pay for your service. I noticed on several road trips that my music license ran out while I was on the road. So I asked Laura Goldberg, vice president at Napster, how to make sure it doesn't happen.
Ms. Goldberg told me that every time you sync your portable music player to your computer -- to load more songs, for instance -- the service refreshes the license on every Napster song on your portable player. So you need to sync at least one song occasionally to keep your licenses up-to-date. The music then will play up to the expiration date listed on your Napster service at the time that you sync your player.
So if you are set up to have Napster charge your credit card on the 15th of every month, your music will play up to the next 15th -- plus a few days that they give you as leeway. If you plan to be away and are unable to sync your portable device to your computer before the 15th, simply pay a month in advance before syncing, so the listed date on your Napster service pushes back by 30 days.