In China, Baidu is the powerhouse, the "it" girl, the search engine to beat. It's a treasure trove of music, most of it illegal.
But Google Inc. may have found a way to increase its market share there -- by offering free music legally.
The U.S. search giant launched a beta version of a Chinese music service called Music Onebox, which is available only in China at www.google.cn.
"We are launching Music Onebox to give users an easy and legal way to find the music they're looking for, and to give music labels and publishers a new channel to distribute, promote and make money off of their valuable music content," a Google spokesperson said.
The way it works: When visitors to Google's home page search for artists or bands, they are directed to www.top100.cn, a music site, to download or stream music. The site has financial backing from basketball wonder Yao Ming. Google said it would not share in the money made off of ads on the music service. Instead, the ad money would be split between Top100.cn and the music labels and publishers.
The new service is a direct challenge to Baidu.com Inc., at a time when the company is under increasing pressure to pay up for facilitating music piracy, according to technology blog Ars Technica. So far, the selection at Top100 is limited.
Google's Music Onebox is the YouTube model all over again, said Brian Zisk, executive producer of the SanFran MusicTech Summit: Make itself the center of media and then try to figure out how to monetize it.
Except in this case, Google is using the lure of free music to draw people to Google.
"They are establishing their presence there," said Zisk, who is also technologies director of the Future of Music Coalition. "One way or another, they can turn it into money."
If Music Onebox works in China, why not here?
In the U.S., such a service is unthinkable right now because the U.S. market still pays some of the music industry's bills. But in China, not so.
The music industry is willing to gamble there because it says to itself, " 'Well, we're not making money in China anyway,' " Zisk said.