Virgin launched its online music service today. Virgin Digital offers customers 99-cent song downloads and a streaming music service that costs just $7.99 a month. Today's version of the service seems to combine the best features of the Apple iTunes Music Store and RealNetworks' RealRhapsody music service, plus Virgin has two aces up its sleeve. First, the service is compatible with the Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, making it instantly compatible with more than 70 portable audio devices. Second, the company plans to extend its service to a new subscription-based model that will let users transfer songs to portable devices. The latter service will cost just a few dollars extra per month when it's released later this year, Virgin says.
But the biggest difference Virgin can bring to the crowded digital music services market is a sense of personality. Unlike the sterile environments Apple Computer, Microsoft, and RealNetworks offer, Virgin Digital is as outgoing and quirky as Sir Richard Branson, Virgin's founder.
"Virgin stands for innovation, fun, and an absolute dedication to customer value," Branson said. "We worked directly with passionate music fans around the world, and together we've come up with a digital music service that truly defines the Virgin energy and spirit. It's time for a digital music revolution!"
Virgin Digital requires a standalone player, which you can download for free from the company's Web site. The service features a "ginormous" catalog of more than one million tracks for sale or streaming. Although individual song downloads are available at the now-standard 99-cent price point, Virgin's streaming service is unusually inexpensive at just $7.99 a month--a fact that should win it converts. The company also bundles with its service a player called Radio Free Virgin, which gives users free access to more than 70 Internet-based radio stations. Want to hear what people in the Virgin Megastores in Paris are listening to? Check out Radio Free Virgin.
Virgin is pushing a customer-centric approach to its online music service, and the company says its customer service efforts will differentiate it from its competitors. An Ask the Expert customer service and music-discovery option will help users virtually walk through the online store and find new music, just as they might with a sales representative in a retail store. Customers also have access to live music and technology experts who can help them with any questions they might have. Finally, the company is touting an exclusive feature called 3-D browsing that cross-links the store's content, including music, album credits, reviews, and artist biographies. "We set huge goals with Virgin Digital," Virgin Digital President Zack Zalon said. "\[We want to bring\] the excitement and customer-focused experience of a Virgin Megastore directly to the world of digital entertainment. And we nailed it. This is the most entertaining, powerful, and intuitive way for dedicated music fans to find, listen to, and manage their music collections. It's a true 360-degree world of music."
I guess we'll find out whether those claims will be borne out as people test the new service in the coming days. In the meantime, you can grab the free Virgin Digital player and try the service.