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Americans spend more money on music at the online iTunes store than any other music retailer. But there's still many people who don't have a home computer to set up an iTunes account. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, a company called Cricket is targeting those consumers with its phone-only music service.
LAURA SYDELL: The customers who come to this Cricket store in Washington, D.C. want cell phones that connect to the Internet to get their email and stay connected to family and friends. But they aren't willing to pay the prices of many of the carriers and that's why they come here.
CINTHIA WILSON: It's cheap and I have four children.
SYDELL: Cinthia Wilson, a medical assistant in D.C., says her sister, who used to be on Sprint, just moved over to Cricket.
WILSON: She got tired of paying all that money for the same thing she can get here for $55. She was paying a hundred and something. That's ridiculous.
SYDELL: And now for an extra $10, customers here can get an unlimited music plan. That appealed to Carlos Dugger.
CARLOS DUGGER: Because I love my gospel and my jazz.
SYDELL: Dugger says it's his phone not his computer that's his main connection to the Internet.
DUGGER: I do use a phone more for Internet purpose than I do at home.
SYDELL: And it's people like Dugger, who are not focused on their computers, who are the target for Cricket's new music service.
JEFF TOIG: Cricket's customers live on their phone. Their phone, not the computer is the center of their life.
SYDELL: Jeff Toig developed Cricket's music service. Toig says most of Cricket's customers make $50,000 a year or less. The iPhone probably isn't even an option. Toig admits they could chose other music subscription services that cost ten dollars a month - names like Napster, Rhapsody and Spotify. But, he says those services all require customers to download an app to their phone first.
TOIG: And the app is less functional. The experience doesn't start on the phone, it starts on the computer and the phone is an extension. We have taken a fundamentally different approach because our experience is all about the phone.
SYDELL: Cricket's music service is built in. And it gives its customers access to millions of songs ranging from the work of great gospel singers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOSHUA FIT THE BATTLE OF JERICHO")
MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) The battle of Jericho, Jericho. Jericho. Talk about the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. Halleluiah.
SYDELL: To independent artists.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDDLE CYCLONE")
NEKO CASE: (Singing) Can't give up acting tough. It's all that I'm made of.
SYDELL: To hits from major labels.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) I'm beautiful in my way, 'cause God makes no mistakes. I'm on the right track baby. I was born this way.
SYDELL: It's surprising in some ways that the big record labels went along with Cricket. They've been notoriously skeptical of online plans. But Michael Nash, a vice president for Digital Strategies at Warner Music, says the typical Cricket customer burns friends CD's and listens to radio.
MICHAEL NASH: So you've got a situation where you don't have, you know, great legitimate music proposition and you don't have a very convenient proposition.
SYDELL: Nash says by creating a music service for the phone Cricket has tapped into many customers who might not have paid anything at all for digital music.
Although the service is phone-based, sales people at Cricket like to point out that it can easily be used to entertain at home. Sean Burroughs, assistant manager at the Cricket store in D.C., shows off a speaker that can connect to the phone.
SEAN BURROUGHS: It's kind of like you have a party in your pocket basically. So this thing is able to - like I said, you get a lot of sound in a small space.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SYDELL: But, there are skeptics who don't think this phone really adds much to what's already out there. Imari Love, an analyst at Morningstar, says pretty much all phones now have Internet access and that's really all you need to have a phone with music.
IMARI LOVE: Even playlists, I mean, you can set those up via YouTube. And I can't remember the last handset that didn't have access to that. So it's really about - actually, I'm actually kind of struggling actually with what real value the Muve product is going to add.
SYDELL: And Love thinks there's a limited market for low-cost phone services. However, since Cricket added what its calling Muve music a little over five months ago it's garnered more than 100,000 users, 50,000 of those customers are completely new to Cricket's phone service. And it may be that in a time when the economy and Americans are struggling, a low-cost service may hit the spot for a growing number of people.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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