Rhapsody charges headlong into iTunes territory

Rhapsody launched its new MP3 store today. After years of running a subscription-based music shop, RealNetwork and MTV have completely retooled their service to pull music fans away from iTunes while letting them keep their iPods. Here’s the pitch:

– The songs are not wrapped in the usual Digital Rights Management (DRM) that handicaps some other online music services. That means these songs will play on iPods – not the case with Rhapsody’s old subscription service. And, unlike with most iTunes songs, they will also work on any other MP3 player.
– Its DRM-free catalog includes songs from all four of the major music labels – Universal, EMI, Sony, and Warner.
– Songs will be 99 cents each, $9.99 for album. Same price as iTunes; Amazon’s MP3s are a few cents less.
– You can listen to the full song before buying it. The normal taste-testing limit is 30 seconds.
– Once you download a song, Rhapsody will volunteer to automatically import the file into iTunes – a nice touch for iPod owners. This feature only works in Windows.
– The service will be rolled into websites such as Yahoo, iLike, and MTV. Rhapsody will also keep its old subscription music plan.
– Through a deal with Verizon, songs can be downloaded straight to some V Cast phones. The purchased tracks can then be transferred to your computer when you get home.

From the looks of it, Rhapsody is doing everything right. The problem is: These are all the same moves that everyone else has made before.

Amazon offers a larger selection of DRM-free music. Several small sites host a more interesting mix of indie music – Ars Technica suggests AmieStreet.com. Even Rhapsody’s most intriguing option – the Verizon V Cast deal – is a current feature on iPhones and iPod Touches.

The whole announcement seems like a “me too” moment for Rhapsody. It’s a solid B+ effort, but there’s little that distinguishes this from the pack – especially for people who own both a Mac and an iPod.

So, if you’re happy with your current MP3 service, carry on. But if you’re itching for something better, give Rhapsody a try.

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