Online music services backed by the major record labels are about to sweeten their offers with a little Brown Sugar.
Many of the Rolling Stones' classic rock 'n' roll songs will be available starting today to subscribers in North America of the Rhapsody music service operated by RealNetworks Inc.
In two weeks, the Stones' post-1971 recordings also are expected to start appearing on rival music services, such as Roxio Inc.'s Pressplay and Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes Music Store.
The move -- potentially a watershed moment for label-authorized services -- means that hundreds of the Stones' songs will be available online for $1 or less per track in a digital format similar to MP3 files but scrambled to limit copying. A major promotional campaign for the Stones and Rhapsody is planned by electronics retailer Best Buy Co.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Rolling Stones' label -- An article in the Business section Monday reported incorrectly that EMI Group's EMI Music had been the record company of the Rolling Stones since 1971. In fact, the band has been with several record labels over the last three decades. The Stones ultimately signed a deal with Virgin Records that gave Virgin the rights to the band's music recorded since 1971, and EMI obtained those rights through its acquisition of Virgin in 1992.
Holdouts among top-selling artists -- such as the Stones, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin -- have made it harder for label-authorized services to compete with file sharing. Although such rock luminaries as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the Beach Boys have made their catalogs available over the last year, other stars have pulled back, imposing new restrictions on Apple and others that want to sell individual tracks from CDs.
The industry-authorized services can use all the help they can get. They've attracted just a fraction of the audience lured by online file-sharing networks such as Kazaa, where tens of millions of users make unauthorized free copies of music and movies.
The free outlets are comprehensive and relatively simple to use, but many of the authorized services have been hampered by complex and inconsistent limitations.
For example, a deal expected to be announced today will give Rhapsody subscribers a different set of rules for Stones songs made before and after 1971.
Under a pact with the band's original label, ABKCO, pre-1971 songs such as "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Gimme Shelter" can be played on an online jukebox but not copied onto CDs. But post-1971 tracks, including "Brown Sugar," "Angie" and "It's Only Rock 'N Roll (But I Like It)," can be copied onto CDs.
Although the band, formed in 1962, is seven years older than the Internet, it has long showed an interest in using technology to promote sales. Progress made by authorized services over the last six months helped convince the band and its advisors that the time was right to jump online, said Ted Cohen, senior vice president of digital development and distribution at EMI Group's EMI Music, the Stones' record company since 1971.
"I think it shows a level of trust and a level of partnership with our artists that says, this is the future, or a major part of the future of how music gets distributed," Cohen said.
The Stones' endorsement isn't a "silver bullet" for the authorized services, but it's still significant, said analyst Michael McGuire of technology research firm GartnerG2. Not only is the Stones' catalog rich in hits, but the band's reputation for being shrewd in its business affairs could help convince other holdout artists about the value of selling songs online, McGuire said.
"They have been satisfied, so to speak," McGuire said. "I think that is important in and of itself."
The risk for artists is that fans will buy a few songs online instead of whole CDs. That's why other holdouts may not budge, McGuire said, until they see what happens to the Stones' CD sales over the next few months.
In its 560 U.S. stores, Best Buy plans to demonstrate Rhapsody on kiosks, some of which will be placed near discounted Rolling Stones CDs. The outlets will offer shoppers free trials of the service.
Scott Young, vice president of digital entertainment for Best Buy, said the company decided to throw its weight behind Rhapsody after a five-month test in stores on the West Coast. "We saw numbers that indicated there was a mass market for this service," he said.