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AOL Selling Songs Online in Unprotected Format

Music: The company is offering 99-cent MP3 singles from new and established acts as part of a 90-day experiment.

June 15, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Internet powerhouse America Online has quietly begun selling downloadable songs, offering exclusive singles from corporate sibling Warner Music Group at a low price and without electronic locks.

The 90-day experiment by the AOL Time Warner Inc. unit, which began June 1, features MP3 files--a freely copyable format favored by consumers but spurned by the major labels. The 99-cent singles come from new artists and established acts, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alanis Morissette and Brandy.

The MP3s are another example of the music industry tiptoeing away from highly secure formats designed to deter piracy--although not necessarily forever. Consumers have been cool to the labels' encrypted songs, preferring digital files that can easily be copied, played on portable devices and burned onto CDs.

Sony Corp.'s Sony Music Entertainment recently decided to allow its copy-protected downloads to be recorded onto CDs with no scrambling. And Universal Music Group, a subsidiary of Vivendi Universal, plans to make tens of thousands of songs available this year for downloading in a secure format that allows CD burning.

Nevertheless, record companies continue to experiment with technologies that limit but don't eliminate copying, seeking to give consumers the flexibility they want without enabling songs to be duplicated freely over the Internet.

"If a major label is selling music in unprotected MP3 files, this has to be only an experimental phase," said analyst P.J. McNealy of GartnerG2, a technology research firm. "There is no way that you'd find all of the labels permanently selling all of the catalog in MP3 files."

Ann Burkhart, a spokeswoman for AOL Music, said the company chose MP3 because it is a standard format that makes buying and listening to music easy and convenient for consumers. AOL will include the charges for downloaded songs in its monthly bills, so members won't have to pay for them immediately--a feature expected to boost sales.

Warner Music has been experimenting with 99-cent downloads for some time, spokesman Will Tanous said, and more experiments are forthcoming as the company studies the online music market.

"We continue to refine our offerings in an effort to see how consumers will react to different models and promotions," he said.

Among other things, McNealy said, AOL's experiment would help Warner understand whether consumers prefer to download songs or play them from online jukeboxes, as well as test prices for music files that are copyable and portable.

"They're moving closer to consumers, but they're not sure how close they want to get yet," he said.

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