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Justify Your Moves, Web Sites Tell Madonna

April 16, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Pop queen Madonna has a message for fans trying to download unauthorized copies of her latest songs: "What the [expletive] do you think you're doing?" the Material Girl asks in audio files circulating on Internet song-sharing services.

The gibe is part of a campaign by Madonna and Warner Bros. Records to prevent tracks off her "American Life" from being copied on Kazaa and other online file-sharing services before it hits store shelves Tuesday.

But companies trying to launch legitimate online music services are asking Madonna the same question.

Warner Music Group, which owns Warner Bros. Records, this week informed the companies that they finally could offer Madonna's earlier releases to subscribers for downloading -- but only as full-length albums, not separate songs. None of the leading services are equipped to deliver music that way, so they still won't be able to offer most of Madonna's music.

The situation reflects the complexities faced by the music industry as it tries to wean music fans off pirate services. Although many artists, labels and publishers have thrown their support behind such legitimate outlets as Pressplay, MusicNet and Listen.com, some top artists and labels remain reluctant to make their music available online the way millions of fans clearly want -- on a song-by-song basis.

"It doesn't make sense," one online company executive said. "It takes away one of the major conveniences for using a service like this."

Caresse Henry, Madonna's manager, said she did not know about the restrictions. "Madonna as an artist has not denied the availability of her music," Henry said, noting that fans can listen to the new album in its entirety this week at the Web site operated by Viacom Inc.'s MTV. Warner officials would not comment.

Several executives close to the situation, however, said Madonna controls how her music is distributed online.

Madonna has used the Internet for several creative promotional efforts, and at one point spoke favorably to Rolling Stone magazine about Napster, a pioneering music-sharing service that went bankrupt after being sued for copyright violations. More recently, however, she joined the music industry's public campaign against piracy.

For "American Life," Warner Bros. agents flooded the file-sharing services with spoofed versions of songs on the album.

The fake tracks appear to be full-length songs, so listeners downloading the tracks don't know they have been duped until they play the files.

Many music industry executives and analysts agree, though, that the most effective anti-piracy measure is providing a way for consumers to obtain music online legitimately. Madonna made a step in that direction last month, offering the title track from the new CD as a downloadable single for $1.49. Distributors included Madonna's Web site, Pressplay, MusicNet on AOL and Listen.com's Rhapsody.

At the time, those services had none of Madonna's earlier hits because they weren't authorized to offer them. Warner informed the services Monday that Madonna's entire catalog would be available to them, but with several notable limitations.

People familiar with the restrictions say they don't allow subscribers to play songs from an online jukebox or download individual tracks that had not been released as CD singles. Nor could subscribers download free temporary copies.

One problem for many of the services is that they aren't equipped technologically to do what Madonna has asked. An exception is Vivendi Universal's Emusic, which features mainly independent-label music, but general manager Steve Grady said he wouldn't be interested in such a restricted offering.

"The online music experience is about flexibility, and that's what people really appreciate about it," he said. "Ultimately, you can't stop people from consuming it the way they want to consume it, so why force it down people's throat?"

Times staff writer Jeff Leeds contributed to this report.

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