Like many of the computers already in homes, a new line of PCs launching today from Gateway Inc. will be stocked with digital copies of hit songs.
The difference is that the songs won't come from online pirates. Instead, they'll be loaded on the PCs with the blessings of the major record labels and music publishers.
The agreement between Gateway and online music distributor Pressplay may be the first of many by the record labels and their allies to bundle songs with digital devices, which are transforming the way consumers collect, arrange and enjoy music.
The goal is to steer consumers away from online file-sharing services and other unauthorized sources of music, which let users copy songs for free.
Pressplay, which is owned by Vivendi Universal's Universal Music Group and Sony Corp.'s Sony Music Entertainment, pays royalties when songs on the computers are played. Gateway PC buyers will receive one to three months of Pressplay's service for free, but they'll have to pay at least $9.95 a month thereafter to keep playing the 150 to 2,000 songs preloaded on their computers.
The theory is that if consumers have a convenient way to sample and buy music, most of them won't go to the trouble of downloading it from the Internet for free. The preloaded music would be wrapped in electronic locks to deter piracy, trigger royalty payments and set limits on playback.
In Gateway's case, those locks prevent people from moving songs to portable devices or copying them onto CDs unless they pay an additional fee of about $1 a song.
Yet in some eyes, that's just what keeps the offer from being really compelling.
"I can't say it's the be-all, end-all distribution model that's going to make people flock to buy access to 2,000 songs," said analyst P.J. McNealy of GartnerG2, a technology research firm. "This is interesting, but the portability piece is more important."
Although some independent labels and services have made a few efforts to bundle songs with devices, Pressplay is the first to do so in a significant way with major-label music. Several of the majors have been reluctant to preload their tracks onto hard drives for fear the electronic locks will be picked and the music taken for free, but those concerns have dimmed as virtually every CD has become available online for free.
Gateway irked the record companies last spring with an advertising campaign that promoted consumers' right to download songs and burn homemade compilation discs. In recent weeks, however, the company has struck deals to promote two of the leading authorized online music companies, Pressplay and Listen.com Inc. of San Francisco.
Under the Pressplay arrangement, consumers can buy a computer with 150 digital songs from one of seven musical genres, or 2,000 songs from a variety of pop, country, rock and hip-hop artists. The genre-based packages can be added to any consumer laptop or desktop for $30. The larger package, which comes with a 40-gigabyte hard drive, can be added to any consumer desktop for $150.