MTV, Microsoft band together for music service

With help of software giant, music TV network readies launch of iTunes rival, two years or more in the making.

After promising to launch a digital music service for several years, MTV said Tuesday that it is close to releasing an online music mart that will throw it into competition with iTunes and Napster.

Although offering few details, the company said it has worked closely with Microsoft to build a service called Urge that will let listeners experiment with new music, as well as offer "original, hand-crafted content" from MTV and its other cable channels.

"As with everything we do at MTV Networks, every element of URGE will be developed with our audience in mind," said Jason Hirschhorn, MTV Networks' chief digital officer, in a statement. "Beyond providing a simple transactional service, Urge will provide a musical playground where fans can experiment, customize, discover and download new music."

The company's anticipated entry into the music business could help shake up dynamics that have long favored Apple Computer's iTunes. A host of companies allied with Microsoft have trailed behind.

MTV first announced that it would enter the digital music market in late 2003, not long after Apple launched the first version of its iTunes store for Windows.

Since then, Apple has consistently maintained a market share in the digital download business of more than 70 percent. Recently, it added a range of music videos and television shows to the iTunes store, encroaching on MTV's territory.

Subscription-based services have also evolved substantially as entrants such as Yahoo, Virgin, and Napster have joined RealNetworks' Rhapsody, tapping Microsoft technology to enable subscribers to bring their music to portable devices.

Nevertheless, MTV does bring a strong music brand to the market, as well as a potential deal sweetener: years of content produced for its television networks that could be distributed through a joint music and video download service.

The company said Urge would include a subscription component, as well as allowing individual song sales. A spokesman declined to discuss pricing, saying full details would be announced next month. The company gave no specifics on launch date beyond saying it would be sometime in 2006.

In a joint release with Microsoft, MTV said the two companies had worked closely together on the design of the new service and that it would be promoted inside the Windows Media Player.

Today, a handful of other services, including Napster, MusicNow and Microsoft's own MSN Music, are available through the Windows Media Player. In its recent antitrust settlement with RealNetworks, Microsoft agreed that it would promote no other music service more heavily than that company's Rhapsody service.

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