Ina Fried

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Little-Known Cricket Wireless Tries a New Take on Subscription Music

Bundling a music subscription into other goods and services has been tried a lot, mostly without success. However, Cricket Wireless is hoping to succeed where others have failed.

The company, best known for its prepaid phones, is offering a new service called Muve Music, which includes the cost of unlimited music downloads as part of a $55 monthly cellphone plan that also includes unlimited talk, text and Web. Basically, Muve adds about $10 to the cost of the monthly cellphone tab (which, incidentally, is about what one can expect to pay for the typical subscription music service).

The music is downloaded directly to the cellphone and is accessible as long as you remain a subscriber. From a technology standpoint, the service works by transferring the music to a secure partition of a 4GB digital memory card in the phone; Cricket says that partition can hold about 3,000 songs.

Cricket is launching the service next month with a single compatible phone–a color touchscreen feature phone known as the Samsung Suede, which will sell for $199. The service will first be available Jan. 6 in Las Vegas, with about 10 of Cricket’s other markets due to come on board later in the month.

What makes the service interesting is the approach–there is no tie to a PC whatsoever. Music comes to the phone, lives on the phone and is managed on the phone. In an interview, Cricket Vice President Jeff Toig said the service is geared to Cricket’s base of customers, many of whom don’t have a PC and broadband connection. It also allows them to get their music the way they do their other cellphone services–by paying in cash at the company’s retail outlets, thereby eliminating the need for a credit card.

The downside, of course, is that the music can only be played on the phone, though the phone can connect to a car stereo or external speakers over bluetooth or via a 3.5mm cable.

On the plus side, Muve doesn’t add much to the cost of a cellphone plan and eliminates some of the complexity traditionally associated with digital music. In addition to the ability to download and play tracks from all four major music labels, Muve subscribers can set any track to be either a ringtone or ringback tone (the music heard by callers while they are waiting for someone to answer).

Nokia tried a somewhat similar approach with its “Comes With Music” phones, which debuted in 2008. In that program, the cost of the music subscription was included in the price of the phone rather than in the monthly cellphone bill. Others, such as SpiralFrog, have tried to create services relying on advertising to subsidize the cost of providing music free to the end user.

Toig said that his customer base is one that typically isn’t downloading music from iTunes at 99 cents a pop, but includes a fair number of people that illegally download music from file sharing services.

The new service, he said, allows them to have a better experience without having to spend much more than they already are, while giving the record industry a chance to reach digital music customers they are largely missing out on today.

Unlike other services, which Toig said bank on the fact that people have access to a computer, Muve tries to make it easy to discover and download music directly from the phone. Customers can subscribe to curated feeds of music that get automatically updated, as well as find and download albums by name. A built-in social network allows them to see what their friends are listening to (assuming they also have a Muve-compatible phone).

“Nobody has done mobile music right,” Toig said.

Cricket won’t say how much of the incremental $10 in monthly revenue it is getting goes to the labels, but Toig said part of the bet is that Cricket will be able to reach customers that it otherwise could not.

“We’re obviously not doing this for a few percent,” he said. “We think this has appeal beyond our base to segments Cricket has not appealed to before.”

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