Cricket’s Muve Music is pre-paid, not pre-pain

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Smartphones put Pandora on the mainstream map and is also helping the fortunes of paid music services such as Rhapsody and Rdio, which has created an iPhone music app that is a viable alternative to purchasing music a la carte with iTunes. Indeed, a subscription music offering is also integrated into Windows Phone 7 with Zune.

But what about the rest of consumers, particularly the millions who use prepaid handset services and feature phones, and pay their monthly cell phone bill in cash? Cricket has developed an intriguing music service for its customers called Muve Music. The basic proposition of Muve is similar to those of other music renal services. One can download all the DRM songs one wants for a monthly fee. Stop paying the fee and the access to the music goes away.

But rather than dealing with a PC and sideloading, Muve downloads music right to the handset over 3G, saving time and bandwidth by heavily compressing audio with a new “good enough” Dolby encoding method. The service will launch on a single Samsung feature phone with more to come, including smartphone implementations.

Cricket has addressed concerns about navigating such a large music library on a handset by offering a Web portal into the service that allows customers to pick songs and designate them to be sent right to the handset. And while it is a relatively focused service, it has also integrated automatic playlist creation and song identification.

Muve Music also lets customers use any available track as their ringtone or ringback tone. It’s about a $10 premium on top of the bill, or about what a monthly subscription to Rhapsody or Napster would cost that allows unlimited downloading. However, it is simply another part of the bill rather than paid to a third-party music provider.

The service is the best effort to date to tie music access into the carrier offering mix, which is the best shot of them becoming mainstream. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Sprint, for example, could roll the service as is into a Simply Everything plan. More post-paid customers would care more about music access on the PC itself, and there could be issues around discounts for family plans. Cricket has leveraged the simplicity of its phone service to deliver a simple on-demand music service for a customer base that it describes as passionate about music and flustered as to the best way to access it on what is their primary music-capable digital device.

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