Amazon music ads fall on skeptical ears

Amazon.com is testing a new advertisement form, offering a piece of software that plugs into the popular Winamp MP3 player and recommends new music--from the online retailer's virtual shelves.

Amazon.com is testing a new advertisement form, offering a piece of software that plugs into the popular Winamp MP3 player and recommends new music--from the online retailer's virtual shelves, of course

In a struggling media market, Amazon is hoping to persuade consumers to take some of the burden of its advertising on themselves in return for offering information about new music to potential shoppers.

The offer is falling on skeptical ears, however. According to statistics kept on Winamp's download page, about 3,600 people have downloaded the software since it was posted in mid-April. Although reviewers have been open-minded about the idea, many of those posting to Winamp and Amazon's own reviews pages have said the actual recommendations have left something to be desired.

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"It keeps suggesting things I already own (and have bought and rated through Amazon)," Daniel Swensen, from Missoula, Mont., wrote on Amazon's Web site. "It keeps suggesting that same Enya album over and over again."

The collapse in the online advertising market has prompted many companies to get creative with ads in ways that would likely have raised more eyebrows a year ago.

Alongside the painfully ubiquitous pop-up or pop-under ad browser windows from companies such as X10, larger companies have lent valuable screen space to their advertisers in new ways. Ask Jeeves redesigned its home page in a "Cast Away" theme in conjunction with that movie's release on video. And Yahoo allowed Ford Motors to produce an ad with a virtual earthquake and a flock of blackbirds that flew across the screen, crashing some people's computers.

Although Amazon's advertising effort has seen halfhearted results, the plug-in does tap into a growing business in the online music world. It tries to help MP3 lovers make sense of the hundreds of thousands of bands and tracks available on the Net through ordinary CD purchases at Amazon or elsewhere--or through downloads at MP3.com or one of the Napster-like file-swapping services.

Several of the big music services, including Napster and Microsoft's MSN Music, have purchased technology similar to Amazon's recommendation engine that helps lead listeners to new music. Analysts say these guidepost functions will need to be a core part of subscription services that offer listeners a potentially bewildering array of Net music.

A quick test of Amazon's Winamp plug-in came back with mixed results. It "cheats" with many songs, offering recommendations of albums by the same artists.

In the case of several obscure tracks, it successfully recommended similar artists or albums. While listening to The Shagg's "My Pal Foot Foot," for example, it brought up a compilation album of similar "outsider" works.

Not every attempt was as successful, however. Listening to a track by Russian rockers Auktyon brought up nothing but repeated albums by Pearl Jam.

Commercial tie-ins on MP3 downloads are far from rare, although Amazon's offer does go further than most. Winamp also offers downloads of music that are sponsored by Coca-Cola, for example.

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