Duo cryptic about news

Although it appeared the last significant holdout was about to go digital, it’s possible that EMI and Apple CEO Steve Jobs may have a different trick up their sleeve.

The British music conglom announced Sunday that Group CEO Eric Nicoli had scheduled a 1 p.m. (8 a.m. ET) press conference in London for an announcement, with Jobs listed as “special guest.” A live performance is skedded follow.

Immediate speculation was that the Beatles catalog would go online through Apple’s iTunes. But later Sunday, at least one Internet report suggested this was not the case, quoting a source saying “There is no Beatles announcement.”

EMI, in its brief statement, said it would be unveiling”an exciting new digital offering,” which would likely mean the relase of music without digital rights management software.

EMI has been a pioneer in releasing music with no restraints on the copying of MP3 files. It released, for example, music by Norah Jones and Lily Allen with none of the encryption that limits the amount of copies that can be made.

Jobs recently called on the major labels to start reconsidering DRM software, suggesting that it could generate sales to aid the slumping industry. Apple has multiple layers of rights management on songs offered through iTunes, including limitations on which devices can play the downloaded music. Waner Music, for one, has been steadfast in retaining DRM software. It’s ironic, then, that companies with such diverging views would be in almost constant talks of a merger. EMI, which has issued several profit warnings in recent months, has rejected several offers from Warner Music Group.

While an announcement regarding DRM software would have repercussions, it’s unlikey to have the affect that a Beatlles announcement would.

The music world has long anticipated the availability of the Beatles catalog on iTunes. None of the Beatles songs are available on any online service, and if iTunes can secure an exclusive deal with EMI to carry the Fab Four’s works from the 1960s, it will be a major coup for the No. 1 download service.

It could also be a major shot in the arm for EMI, which has had a number of underperformers among its top-name artists but has consistently done well with its catalog. EMI owns Virgin Records and Capitol Records, which issued the Beatles albums in the U.S.

Concurrently, while the EMI labels have undergone a major restructuring, they have yet to generate interest from potential buyers. One potential buyer, a private equity group headed by former EMI exec Jim Fifield, dropped out of the running over the weekend.

Apple, the manufacturer of computers and the iPod, and Apple Corps, the Beatles’ record label, have been settling a multiyear legal row for the last 10 months. The Beatles lost a lawsuit against Apple in May; during that trial it was disclosed that the band’s music was being prepped for digital distribution.

Beyond the release of the first eight American versions of the Beatles albums, the recordings have not been touched since the British versions of all the albums were released in 1987.

Announcement, if it does indeed involve the Beatles, would occur on the 40th anniversary of the final recording session for their landmark album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Aside from the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney’s solo works remain the major catalog items not available on iTunes.

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