Matador jumps in the ring with Napster

In a sign that it still sees a future as an online music service provider, Napster has announced a licensing agreement with...

In a sign that it still sees a future as an online music service provider, Napster has announced a licensing agreement with independent record label Matador Records

But while Napster is working to unveil its service, which is now due to be launched in the first quarter of next year, other online music services are already going live, leaving some speculation as to how the former rebel contender will fare in the high-stakes battle for listeners.

Major-label-backed music subscription service MusicNet, for example, was officially launched as part of RealNetworks' RealOne subscription content service last week. Although Napster is a MusicNet affiliate, giving it access to musical content owned by heavyweights AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann and EMI, the service still has to compete on its own.

Napster's deal with Matador is the latest in a string of licensing agreements it has made with more than 5,000 independent labels, however, adding to the record-superstore load of content the service hopes to offer at launch.

However, a message recently posted on Napster's Web site indicates that basic features of the new service, such as pricing and availability, are still uncertain. "We understand that convenient access to a wide range of content is one of the biggest reasons people go to the Web for music, and we're doing everything we can to bring that to you. Our primary focus now is getting licences for music - an effort that will affect our launch date and the cost of the service," the posting reads.

While Napster continues to prepare for a comeback, after having its peer-to-peer free file swapping service knocked offline earlier this year for copyright infringement, rival services are making a splash. managed to beat MusicNet's unveiling by one day when it released its Rhapsody subscription service on 3 December. Rhapsody is a streaming service, however, that has yet to announce any major-label deals.

And in the end, content will be the make-or-break factor for all the online music service providers.

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