Recently, Yahoo unveiled the beta version of its answer to iTunes, Yahoo Music Unlimited. The business model is similar to Netflix's: for a flat fee, currently set at $4.99 a month if you sign on for a year, you can download as many Windows Media Audio files (WMA's) as you want to from their selection.
There are three major caveats:
1) You do not gain a property right to the WMA files - so as of midnight on the day your subscription runs out, you can't play the songs any longer.
2) You cannot transfer the WMA's to an mp3 player unless it is one of a dozen or so new models by the likes of Creative, Dell, and iRiver - so iPods and old Creative Jukeboxes need not apply.
3) You cannot burn WMAs you have downloaded onto a cd, unless you pay another 79 cents per song for the right to burn it.
I've been using Yahoo Music Unlimited for about a week or so, and I think it's pretty awesome. The songs download pretty quickly - under 10 seconds for most tracks.
The fact that you don't actually get a property right to the files bothered me at first, for the same reasons I hate paying rent and would never lease a car. And I guess part of that was because I wondered if the tracks would play unpredictably, starting and stopping the way that streaming media does. But because the files are downloaded onto your hard drive, they play and sound just like an mp3, and not a preview or streaming file. I have an old Gateway 2000 hooked up to my stereo with a standard $7 cord from Radio Shack, and it sounds great.
Like iTunes, Yahoo Music Unlimited's selection is extremely unpredictable. This is obviously mostly a consequence of the developing state of the services' contractual arrangements with labels. The most frustrating example of this has to be the Rolling Stones' catalogue: the earliest album of theirs offered is 1971's Sticky Fingers. The Stones had already released 4 or 5 masterpieces by 1971, and although 40 Licks is there to take care of a lot of the hits, I want "Monkey Man," "Please Go Home," and all the other great Stones album tracks from the 60's (a friend of mine once got into a heated argument with a stranger about whether Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street is a better album - but I'll take 1969's Let it Bleed over either one).