Free music downloads? Is this good news for music lovers!? What’s the catch?

Universal Music, the world’s largest music company, has shaken up the record industry by announcing that it will make its song catalogue available as free internet downloads. Unlike Napster and other competing online music retailers, could this service actually pose a challenge to iTunes.

Are these tracks really free??? Don’t be silly.

Is Universal Music just giving away all their music for free? Not exactly. A series of advertisements would play while you wait for each song to download. Will this advertising model work for an online music store? According to research conducted by Universal Music and SprialFrog, consumers willing to watch non-intrusive relevant advertising in exchange for the free content. I guess some people like watching advertising. Not me. I’d rather pay TiVo a service fee for the ability to fast-forward thru the commercials.

Catch#1: you have to watch advertising before/while downloading tracks

So what is stopping someone from redistributing these free tracks on P2P sharing services like BitTorrent once downloaded? According to SprialFrog, Universal Music Group’s online distribution partner, digital rights management (DRM) technology will be built into all audio and video content to address the issue of piracy. However, DRM can be a double-edged sword if you are not careful. The model of DRM they plan on using is Windows Media based and means that any free tracks that you download cannot be burned on to a CD and won’t work with Apple computers or iPod music players. Personally, that’s a major deal breaker for me.

Catch #2: tracks cannot be burned on to a CD

Catch#3: tracks won’t work with Apple computers or iPod music players

In addition to Universal Music’s artists, which include U2 and Kanye West, SprialFrog is seeking to license the catalogs of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and EMI Group. It’s a start. iTunes currently offers millions of songs and video content worldwide. SprialFrog and Universal Music Group have a lot of catching up to do.

Catch#4: smaller music catalogue than iTunes

Will this service actually pose a threat to Apple’s iTunes Music Store? Since iPod owners can’t use these free downloads, it’s doubtful. But you can’t blame the entertainment industry for scrambling to find new ways to make money as the Internet rewrites the rules of distribution and marketing.