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Madonna grooves with MP3 release

For the first time, the pop singer's music goes out digitally to her legion of Net fans--and with the move, the Material Girl breaks a little new online ground for major artists.

Monday marked the first time pop singer Madonna's music went out digitally to her legion of Net fans--and with the move, the Material Girl broke a little new online ground for major artists.

Madonna is selling her new antiwar single, "American Life" on her Web site, charging $1.49 for the download of a high-quality, wholly unrestricted MP3 file. Her publicists started taking preorders a week ago, and in a novel move for a high-profile recording artist, enlisted fans to help sell the single on their own Web sites.

The so-called Madonna Project program--drawn directly from Amazon.com's and other Web sites' affiliate strategies--saw banners and advertisements for the single pop up on fan Web pages and blogs last week. Sites whose advertisements resulted in sales of the single would get credit toward Madonna prizes and merchandise.

"The Madonna Project is a top-secret initiative to revolutionize how music is distributed on the Web, and Madonna wants you to join," the singer's site read last week. "The more singles sold through your site or links, the better your chance to win a pat on the back, a gold star and some serious Madonna prizes."

The release of a high-quality, unrestricted MP3 single online marks a significant turnaround for Madonna, and helps underline how far the big record labels have come in their steps toward online distribution.

Madonna was one of the first artists to make a public stink about her work slipping onto Napster before its official release date. In more recent months, she has been one of the major artists to block distribution of most of her work through online subscription services such as Pressplay or Listen.com's Rhapsody service.

Word went out a week ago that fans signing up on her Web site, and paying $1.49 though the Paypal service, would be able to download the single Monday. The high-quality MP3 format meant that fans would be able to burn it to a CD or transfer it to a portable device without the restrictions usually imposed on authorized major-label downloads.

If the single slipped out on file-swapping networks before that time, fans would get the single in their e-mail box, the singer's Web site promised. Predictably, the tune found its way online Sunday, and the record label e-mailed it to fans that day.

In the ensuing week, "thousands" of people signed up to be Web affiliates, a Warner Music representative said.

The single was also simultaneously released on several of the online music subscription services, the first time Madonna's major-label work has appeared on any of the legal music services.