Universal Music's agreement with SpiralFrog.com to make its vast music library available for free download in mp3 format is truly a stunning case of "why didn't anyone think of that before?" If you only have to watch a short ad to download a song, and then go back to the website periodically to watch some ads to keep the songs on your computer licensed, it's a no-brainer. I'm sure Napster and iTunes will be pressured to offer something similar, soon after the service opens in December. With low-end mp3 players now cheaply available at places like Wal-Mart and Staples, Universal and SpiralFrog.com are poised to really make a killing. Hope they've got some heavy-duty servers running. I'm sure they'll need them.
The real winners of this model of music distribution could be independent musicians. Sites like epitonic have struggled to give away music tracks for free in the hopes that consumers will be interested in buying more tracks from the same artists. If independent musicians can ride the coattails of Universal's new distribution model (and it's not really all that new, since commercial radio stations make their money from ad revenue), the ability of just about any decent and hard-working musician to derive an income from their work will be greatly enhanced.
Many formerly unknown and unpublished writers now enjoy incomes from ad-supported blogs, and have developed faithful worldwide audiences, though only a handful have been able to make their livings entirely from their writing. I think the musicians' results will be similar.