Computers.salkowski/18"/dt1st/mark2nd

By Joe Salkowski

It would be easy to write off the recent success of MP3.com's initial public offering as just another chapter in Wall Street's irrational love affair with Internet stocks.

So easy, in fact, that you probably ought to do just that.

MP3.com Inc. has a nifty Web site, a catchy name and a wide selection of downloadable music. But nothing about the company explains why, after its first day of trading, it should be walking around with a market value approaching $4 billion.

In fact, I'll be surprised if MP3.com even exists five years from now. And if it does, it's likely to have abandoned the one asset that attracted all those misguided investors in the first place: its name.

MP3.com is named after MP3, a popular format for compressed sound files on the Net. It works sort of like a magic suitcase that allows you to pack an entire closet's worth of clothes yet still squeeze it into the overhead bin on the plane.

Of course, your clothes might get a little wrinkled if they were packed so tightly. Similarly, MP3 doesn't quite deliver CD-quality sound. But Net users have been willing to put up with a small loss in quality in exchange for the ability to squish songs into files they can swap online.

Most people use MP3s to store their music collection online or to download popular songs others have posted. It's also possible to make your own MP3-based radio programs available to anyone on the Net.

Unfortunately, MP3.com doesn't make money on any of this. Instead, it serves as a sort of record label for thousands of unsigned performers. Bands usually offer a handful of songs that can be downloaded by prospective fans free of charge. Listeners who like what they hear can then order a CD, and the bands split the proceeds with MP3.com. The site also sells plenty of banner ads.

MP3.com would make a lot more money, though, if anyone had ever heard of the bands featured on its pages. Instead, the site comes off like a particularly pathetic music club, the sort where you might have trouble finding 10 CDs worth your penny.

The Top 40 list of alternative rock songs, for example, doesn't include anything from the Smashing Pumpkins, Hole or Marilyn Manson. Instead, it features the likes of Red Delicious, Fat Amy and the Streaming Streaming Geeks. That's not the sort of lineup that sells Lollapalooza tickets.

Still, the bands have attracted plenty of Net users. MP3.com serves up more than 2 million pages a day, a phenomenal number for a site launched just last year. But it owes much of that traffic to the recording industry's reluctance to embrace online music.

Thanks to its opportune Web address, MP3.com is the easiest place for Web surfers to find downloadable tunes. Real record labels, meanwhile, are still trying to figure out a way to release their popular artists' music online without allowing Net users to copy it MP3-style and distribute it online for free.

Once the labels get their act together, Net users won't have any trouble finding songs from their favorite artists or buying entire albums online. And they'll be listening to that music in a different format, setting up a VCR vs. Betamax-style rift in the online music scene.

MP3 backers say the format is too popular to die, which is the sort of thinking that got Julius Caesar into trouble. In truth, most people could care less about the format they want the music. And given a choice between Britney Spears and Fat Amy, well, I think I know which way the American consumer is going to go.

Besides, MP3.com's investor-friendly name won't sound so good in a few years. As computers get more powerful and high-bandwidth connections get more common, Net users will probably embrace some new, high-quality file format. When that happens, MP3.com is going to sound about as hip and trendy as horseandbuggy.com.

It would be nice if MP3.com could survive the coming commercialization of online music. By connecting fans with performers they otherwise couldn't have heard, the site provides a valuable service that wouldn't be possible without the Net.

But the company's new stockholders aren't looking for critical acclaim. Judging by the price they paid for a piece of MP3.com, they're clearly expecting a top 40 hit.

Their stock certainly rocketed up the charts in a hurry. But don't be surprised if, before too long, it turns up in the bargain bin.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.

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