Service will be up and running in a month

NEW YORK — The MTVi Group and music Netco RioPort will bow what they claim to be the first retail music download service with the blessing of all five major music labels, just days after three of those majors unveiled a separate pact to offer online music subscriptions.

The MTVi/RioPort service, which the company says will be officially up and running within a month, will offer access to the downloads through MTV’s Internet radio properties, including the newly launched RadioMTV.com, and VH1 at Work Radio.

Users will get pop-up links as they listen, through which they can click to buy singles and albums from a list of roughly 10,000 available tracks. The companies will be adding more tracks each week, including music from indie Artemis Records.

Comparable pricing

Prices for the tracks will be comparable to in-store ones for music offline, ranging from 99¢ to $1.99 each for singles and from $11.99 to $18.99 for albums, the companies said.

EMI new media VP Ted Cohen defended the rates as necessary to ensure proper artist compensation.

“To do differential pricing would make it more complex,” he said on a conference call. “You’d have to go to the artist and say you’re going to get less because it’s being downloaded electronically.”

The backend technology, as well as the licenses for the major-label content, come from RioPort, which signed deals with each of the majors individually over the past year. The company’s most recent agreement, announced Tuesday, was with Warner Music.

Format flexible

The format of the downloaded music will depend largely on what is provided by the majors themselves, which could create some confusion among users accustomed to using just one media player, such as RealPlayer or Windows Media. But RioPort topper Jim Long said the company has built its own downloadable player that will accommodate all file types.

“We can handle multiple formats in a one-stop service for browsing and buying, download support and customer support,” Long said on the call.

Exactly what the users can do with the files they’ve downloaded will also vary by track. Some tracks can be uploaded to mobile devices and/or burned onto a CD, while others cannot. Thanks to RioPort’s security measures, however, none of the tracks will be tradeable on file-sharing networks such as Napster, Long added.

Others invited

RioPort said it will also offer the technology for the download service to partners other than MTVi, including live music site Houseofblues.com and teen portal Bolt.com.

Move comes in the middle of a hectic week for online music technology. On Monday, AOL Time Warner, BMG parent Bertelsmann and EMI Group announced a pact with online media firm RealNetworks to create an Internet music subscription service, using content from the three labels.

Thursday, EMI will announce a deal with music Netco HitHive to distribute EMI’s online catalog of 150 albums through a new limited file-sharing network over PCs and wireless devices, which lets users send tracks to friends who get a limited number of demo plays before they’re asked to buy.

And by the end of the week, Vivendi Universal is expected to announce a distribution deal for music — and possibly its other media offerings — over the Net. The company’s own Universal Music unit previously formed its own fledgling subscription service, called Duet, with Sony Music.

Hatching a congressional plan

The flurry of activity also coincided with a high-profile hearing on digital media and copyright protection held Tuesday by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. At the hearing, committee chairman Orrin Hatch warned the labels that if they couldn’t get their acts together on the digital music front soon, lawmakers might feel compelled to help clear the way.

That warning was not lost on MTVi chief exec Nicholas Butterworth.

“The whole point of this is that we want to make it even easier to get music legally than it is illegally,” he said, alluding to Napster, with which Hatch is said to sympathize.

Butterworth added that MTVi’s plan is to have 50% of all the music played on MTV’s television channels — including MTV, MTV2, VH1 and CMT — available for paid download by the end of the year.

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