Users of Microsoft's Zune Pass subscription currently pay $15 a month to gain access to millions of music tracks via the Zune Marketplace, but until today, that music became unaccessible if they let their subscriptions run out. Now, however, Microsoft has reached agreements with the world's largest recording companies to allow Zune Pass subscribers to permanently keep 10 songs each month, effectively lowering the cost of the subscription to $5 a month and making it a much better value for consumers.

"The way people consume music has changed," says Microsoft Zune general manager Chris Stephenson. "With the shift to digital from CDs, it is more challenging than ever to offer the right mix of deep content, music discovery and economic value. People want the freedom to listen to whatever they want across millions of songs, combined with the confidence that they can keep their favorite tracks forever."

Microsoft says that EMI Music, Sony BMG, Universal Music and Warner Music Group have all agreed to the terms of the agreement, as have several independent music companies. In addition, virtually all of these companies have all agreed to allow Microsoft to sell their music in MP3 format from the Zune Marketplace, and the software giant reports that over 90 percent of the music it sells will soon be in MP3 format as a result. (The rest is in legacy WMA format.)

Music subscriptions have been around a while but haven't really taken off with consumers because of readily accessible free music online and high prices. According to music industry insiders, market leader Apple has been trying to enter the subscription music market for years, but recording companies have blocked those moves because of Apple's monopolistic pricing practices. Those same companies have instead embraced Apple's competitors, and have also offered them protection-free music, usually in MP3 format, a perk they refuse to provide to Apple.

Despite these moves and the quality of the Zune platform and some of the other competition, Apple still dominates the digital music industry. Microsoft is said to be planning other changes to the Zune in the future as a result, including moving the Zune software to its popular Windows Mobile devices.