Free All Music (FAM) is the latest online start-up to offer ad-supported music to price-sensitive consumers. FAM has signed up Universal Music Group and EMI. As any student of digital music knows, a new business model can achieve media attention far easier than profitability. For consumers more concerned with free downloads than financial performance, FAM gets the job done.

The Atlanta-based service differs from its predecessors and peers in a number of ways:

First, it offers high-quality MP3s. Spiral Frog, a previous attempt at ad-supported downloads, offered files with digital rights management.

Second, users are limited to a set number of downloads per week, and unused credits do not carry forward. Combined with a private beta, the restrictions on usage is basically a built in insurance policy against the expenses that come with runaway popularity.

Third, users must watch a video advertisement before downloading each song. It might sound like a lot, but with five songs per week, that comes out to two and a half minutes of advertisements for about half an album. It's not a bad deal.

Fourth, FAM strives to do a better job of matching brands and users than other ad-supported services. Users actually choose which ad they want to watch before downloading a song. In theory, the consumer is more engaged, more likely to buy and more valuable to the advertiser.

After receiving an invitation to the private beta on Tuesday, I signed up for an account and took the site for a test drive. Here are some notes from my first experiences with the site.

Home Page
FAM home page is currently dominated by a large mid-section featuring easy-to-find instructions on the site and its components. Top FAM downloads sit to the right. Top songs in eight genres sit at the bottom. Little lies below the fold - only links to information about the site and its features. The black-and-red color scheme has more in common with a communist handbook than a digital music store (the company's star logo has a bit of a revolutionary look) but it works well enough.

FAM highlights the fact that it has hits, but it has quite a deep selection of UMG and EMI catalog: rock band Sonic Youth, metal revivalists Steel Panther, jazz legend John Coltrane, many solo albums by John Fogerty, electro-dance act Fever Ray, Eric Dolphy and others jazz legends on Blue Note, and British pop star Lilly Allen.

Browse and Search
For people used to browsing for music on iTunes and Amazon, FAM's search experience will be a let-down. Ironically, P2P users will feel right at home with the bare-bones search features. FAM has top ten lists in numerous genres and a list of the top 100 overall songs. That's slightly helpful. But browsing is a tedious task. It's best to go into FAM with something specific in mind. The site lacks the editorial, genre-specific pages and additional content that enable and encourage discovery at its competitors.

One problem is that search results come in bulk. For example, FAM lists 20 different Radiohead titles but makes no distinction between date of release or format (LP versus EP or single). Twenty album titles are also listed under Coldplay with no distinction between compilations, soundtracks, singles, EPs and LPs.

Currently, FAM needs to offer more hand-holding because users aren't sure what songs are in its catalog. Until FAM signs more labels and gets a very broad catalog, it needs to do a better job of leading people to what it does have rather than let people discover what it doesn't have.

After selecting song, the user is asked to choose a brand. After selecting one of about ten brands, a brief video will play. On one occasion I selected Live United, which lead to a video advertisement less than ten seconds long. The next screen had a link to the download.

An ad for online shoe store ran all of ten or 12 seconds. Other ads - for Coca-Cola, Powermats and the TV show "Life Unexpected" - ran a full 30 seconds. All in all, very painless.

In addition to the video advertisements, there is additional advertising placed on the site. After the Coca-Cola ad played, for example, block ads for MyCoke Rewards and the online Coca-Cola store were stacked one atop the other on the screen's right margin.

As I selected ads to watch, I was reminded of FAM's claim that allowing users to select ads would create a better match between consumer and brand. No such match was made in my case. Instead of clicking on brands I care deeply about (or care moderately about, or am curious about), I clicked on brands nearly randomly without selecting the same ad twice. The last thing I wanted to do was watch the same advertisement seven times, no matter how much affinity I have for the brand.

The download process was simple. and eMusic, for example, have made the process even easier via a download manager application, but downloading tracks from FAM is like saving any other file to a hard drive. Even so, saving one track at a time is pretty painless. The downloads each sped through in just a few seconds.

After downloading the title track on Grant Green's "Grantstand," I followed the "More songs from this album" link back to the album page. Oddly, FAM did not recognize I had already downloaded the track. Thus, people could waste limited downloads on songs already in their collections - acquired either from FAM or elsewhere.

In giving me credits for downloads, FAM did not differentiate between short and long songs. Thus, I was able to use a single credit each on two tracks from Ravi Shankar's "Live at the Monterey Pop Festival." One track is 27:17, the other is 19:41. So, I got 47 minutes of music for watching about 45 seconds in advertisements. That's among the best (legal) music values on the Internet.

The MP3 files I downloaded were all high-quality, 320kbps. The Grant Green tracks had a slight metadata issue. Three of the five tracks listed "Rudy Van Gelder Edition" with the album and tacked on "2000 Digital Remaster" to the song title. The other two tracks did not carry the extra specifications. None of the tracks came with album art. iTunes was able to find cover art for the Green songs but not for the Shankar songs until I changed the name of the album title in the tracks' metadata. (On iTunes, Shankar's album is simply titled "Live at Monterey." At FAM, the title is "The Ravi Shankar Collection: Live: Ravi Shankar At the Monterey International Pop Festival." This discrepancy prevented iTunes from finding the cover art.) While the extra time spent cataloging the tracks was only a minor annoyance - especially considering the cost - I do not want to go through it every week.

The site was unresponsive after my third download, so I ended my session and returned later. Otherwise, FAM proved to be responsive, easy to navigate and worth the price (the time spent watching about three and a half minutes of advertisements). I was given seven - not five - downloads for the week, and I used up all seven credits in short order (in case I forgot to log in later in the week).

Free All Music is not as fun to navigate as, say, eMusic. It does not have the wealth of customer reviews of or iTunes. It currently lacks many titles that most consumers would expect to find in its catalog. Its search results are weak and it completely lacks editorial. But it offers a fairly pain-free experience that results in a handful of free, legal MP3s per week. I'll be back next week for more.