Higher-education officials are pondering what the future holds for digital music on college campuses after the demise of yet another legal music downloading service aimed at college students.

In early February, Ruckus–a download service supported by advertisements and available free of charge to college students–went under, continuing a string of early departures by low-cost music sites. Ruckus shut down after Universal Music Group and Sony did away with their Total Music venture, which owned Ruckus.

Napster, which switched to a legal downloading service after beginning as a controversial free file-sharing site in the late 1990s, and Cdigix were other affordable music sites that have closed down or stopped catering to colleges in recent months.

Low-cost digital music services have failed on college campuses in part because music choices were so limited that students were driven to illegal file-sharing web sites where more songs were available–and free.

Some online music experts said Ruckus’s business model never had a chance for long-term success. A limited number of songs were available on the site, and Ruckus never worked adequately on Macintosh computers or measured up to Apple iTunes, officials said.

"Ruckus simply wasn’t a good program. What students want is access to every song without restrictions," said Jeffrey Podoshen, an assistant professor of business, organizations, and society at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and author of a research article that explores why college students illegally share files. "Anything else won’t work. When [students] face restrictions, they feel this animosity toward these sites. … [Ruckus] was absolutely doomed from the start."

Jean L. Boland, vice president for IT services at Morrisville State College in New York–a Ruckus customer–said students’ most frequent complaint about Ruckus was their inability to download songs to iPods. Students could  listen to Ruckus music only on their laptops.

"It’s definitely something that students would like to see replaced," said Boland, who added that 3,000 of Morrisville’s 3,300 students were signed up for Ruckus. "Students used it because they were safe and it was legal."

Boland said the IT department is keeping an eye on Qtrax.com, a music service that will launch soon, according to its home page. The site says it does not require subscriptions and promises "free and legal downloads from all the major record companies" and "legal P2P ‘bootleg’ versions."

Podoshen said record executives have been unwilling to adjust to the dramatic changes in the music industry this decade. Some low-cost services did not allow users to download single tracks. Instead, users had to buy entire albums–spending $10 or $12 instead of $1 for a single track.

As recently as last fall, university IT departments complained about a flood of warnings and lawsuits filed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against students who shared songs and movies illegally over campus computer networks. IT officials said passing the warnings along to students required major efforts, with some colleges forced to hire a full-time employee just to handle the legal paperwork. Some schools refused to serve as a go-between for the RIAA late last year.

Despite the onslaught of legal threats from the music industry, illegal peer-to-peer (P2P) networks are attracting more users, including college students. The average number of P2P users "almost doubled globally" between 2003 and 2005, according to market research firm Big Champagne.

The next evolution of music downloads could be a low-cost site called Choruss. Introduced late last year by music industry consultant Jim Griffin and the Warner Music Group, Choruss has yet to make a major announcement, but reports say the service would cost a few dollars per student. Students then could download music from the Choruss network, and royalties would be distributed to music companies and artists accordingly.

Who pays that fee could be up to campus decision makers. Podoshen said colleges and universities of all sizes probably would be reluctant to shoulder the costs for music downloading in a time when most campuses are scrutinizing budgets and cutting costs amid dismal economic conditions. On America’s largest campuses, paying a minimal per-student fee could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

"My guess is that something like this is probably not going to fly," he said. "But it may work in better economic times."

IT officials at Morrisville State are searching for the college’s next digital music service after Ruckus closed down this month. In the meantime, the college sent an eMail message to students recommending free legal music and video streaming sites such as Pandora.com and Hulu.com, said Boland.

Boland said she has tracked Choruss’s progress in recent months, adding that Morrisville would be willing to pay only small per-student fees for the service.

"One dollar yes, $3 no," she said.

Music industry experts said any digital music downloading service owned and run by a major label would not appeal to students who troll the internet for the latest unique tracks and albums.

"Right now, they’re trying to dictate which services are going to be used," said Jesse Brede, site director for Texas-based streaming media provider Blastro, which assembled Ruckus’s video library. "[Music industry giants] don’t have the cool factor, and I don’t think they ever will."

Brede said emerging web sites that cater to music lovers include The Hype Machine, which aggregates music files by tracking blogs that post new music. The songs are added to the sites’ databases, and users can scan seemingly endless selections with no charge.

With sites like these, major labels are struggling to find ways to maintain their grip on the distribution of music, Brede said.

"I think, unfortunately, the major labels are very threatened," he said. "They’re scrambling to find ways to continue to monetize their content … and they don’t have a lot of control."

Links:

Qtrax

The Hype Machine

Blastro