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BMG to Post New Music on Web

Internet: Record label will make forthcoming albums and singles downloadable for a fee.

October 11, 2000|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Committing itself more dramatically to the Internet than any other major record label, BMG Entertainment announced Tuesday that consumers will be able to download all of BMG's forthcoming albums and singles from the Web.

That promise came even though BMG, whose artists include such pop-chart toppers as Christina Aguilera and Carlos Santana, continues to work out the details of how consumers will buy and play its downloadable music. The company made its first 100 songs and albums available for downloading Tuesday, but only at the Lycos Web site and in only one of the many popular formats for digital music.

BMG's four largest competitors--Seagram, EMI, Time Warner and Sony--have unveiled competing programs for online distribution this year. For the most part, these technologies are considered too unwieldy and too expensive and have sparked virtually no interest from Internet music fans.

So far, none of the giant music conglomerates has been able to come up with a practical alternative to popular file-swapping technologies such as Napster, which have attracted millions of users who continue to trade thousands of unauthorized copyrighted songs per day.

BMG's initial roll-out suffers from many of the same compatibility and portability shortcomings that plague the other major labels' Internet offerings. For example, so far, none of the songs can be loaded onto a portable music player--they're wedded to the first computer they're played on.

Kevin Conroy, the label's chief marketing officer and president of new technology, stressed that the system would improve. Even with the current limits, he said, BMG was still giving consumers what they want most of all: a legitimate, reliable and easy-to-use source of downloadable music from popular artists.

It's not giving consumers a discount, though. The download prices range from $1.98 to $3.49 for singles and from $9.98 to $14.98 for albums.

The first batch, which includes three singles from Santana and Aguilera's second-to-last album, was picked because it's among the most popular material on BMG's labels, Conroy said.

In addition to making all new releases available for downloading, the company plans to add a steady diet of previously released songs and albums, he said.

By the holiday season, BMG hopes to have as many as 2,500 titles available for downloading.

Some of BMG's competitors have made more downloadable music available on a trial basis, but none has committed to offering downloadable versions of all new releases.

Still, all are ramping up their efforts to distribute music through the Internet, spurred by the challenge from such online music-trading sites as Napster Inc.

But like the other major labels, BMG isn't selling music in the most popular downloadable format, MP3. Instead, the label is selling files in the AAC format--an advanced version of MP3--encrypted so they can't be copied and traded freely over the Internet.

The files boast better sound quality than the typical MP3, but the initial versions aren't compatible with most software needed to play music on a computer or portable device.

Consumers rushing to Lycos to download Patti Smith's "Lo and Beholden," for example, can't play it without the latest version of MusicMatch jukebox--a large piece of software that takes more than an hour to download over a dial-up modem.

Conroy said it's just a matter of time before other jukebox programs and portable players adapt to the format chosen by BMG.

In the meantime, though, consumers who buy downloadable files have to use several programs to play all the music they purchase.

By contrast, those who get music for free off Napster, Gnutella or other sources of MP3 files--possibly in violation of the labels' and artists' copyrights--can with one program play all their music, transfer it to almost any portable device, and record it onto their own CDs.

Lycos is a strategic marketing partner of BMG and its parent company, Bertelsmann. In the future, BMG plans to offer its downloadable tunes through several other, unaffiliated online retailers, including Tower Records, Wherehouse Music and Best Buy.

Through those retailers, consumers will be able to find and buy both CDs and downloadable files in one fell swoop. That's not the case yet at Lycos, where consumers have to make a separate trip to Barnes & Noble's Web site to buy CDs.

When it announced its downloading plans in April, BMG said it would also use Microsoft technology. But that technology was notably absent from the initial roll-out, and Nathaniel Brown, a BMG spokesman, said the companies were still negotiating.

Instead, BMG is using software from InterTrust Technologies Corp. to protect against piracy.

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