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U bows trial service for music downloads

Online subscription offers more than 20,000 songs

NEW YORK — Universal Music Group has become the first of the major labels to bow an unlimited digital music subscription service on the ‘Net, offering more than 20,000 songs from its active catalog to a trial group of 5,000 users.

Service, which went online in a beta test last week, will allow users to access songs, on a streaming basis only, from Universal bands on demand. The label may expand the service to include digital music downloads as well, but no timetable has been established as yet.

Participants for the closed test were culled from the subscription ranks of Jimmy and Doug’s Farmclub, Universal’s television show and Web site that showcases up-and-coming artists. They will be allowed to access the song library free of charge for the duration of the test, whose length was not disclosed.

If the service is deemed ready for wider release, U will likely start charging a flat monthly fee of about $15 per month.

Trial users have access to Universal’s digitized tunes via an online database through which they can search by artist, song title or musical genre. They can also make and stream custom playlists. The songs are formatted to be played with either RealNetworks or Windows Media software.

For now, the subscription plan will feature only tracks from artists on U labels. Another of the big five, Sony Music, may contribute music from its own digital stable to the service in the near future.

Last May, Sony and Universal announced plans to bow some form of subscription-based services by the end of the year, but the details of the proposed offering were scant.

The companies did say that their plan would include a combination of on-demand streaming and downloadable offerings and that the pricing model would be patterned after that of cable TV, with different levels of service at different price points.

Over the past several months, all five majors have announced plans to sell music on the Web, primarily in the form of a la carte downloads, with prices generally set at 20%-30% below retail for hard copies. No label, however, has made its entire catalog available to all consumers in any format as yet.

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