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MTV, Real, and Verizon to take on iTunes with new music initiative

The three companies are "joining forces" for Rhapsody America, a revamped incarnation of RealNetworks' Rhapsody subscription service that's absorbed MTV's erstwhile rival Urge.

MTV, Real, and Verizon Wireless have 'formed Voltron' in an effort to take on the iTunes behemoth.
TV Tokyo

With their new joint digital music initiative, MTV Networks, RealNetworks and Verizon Wireless are taking a direct aim at Apple's iTunes powerhouse.

Called Rhapsody America, the yet-to-launch collaboration among the three companies will combine MTV's relatively unsuccessful Urge music store, the Real-owned Rhapsody subscription download service, and Verizon's V Cast mobile media service to create a music store that reaches across the PC, digital music player, and mobile phone platforms.

The new Rhapsody America company is officially a joint venture between MTV Networks and Real Networks, with Verizon Wireless as its exclusive mobile partner. Urge as a brand will cease to exist, with Rhapsody becoming the service of choice for MTV Networks' MTV, VH1, and CMT music brands. Michael Bloom, general manager of MTV's Urge, has been appointed head of the new company, and the company's offices will be located in New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

Urge had been launched as a music store in conjunction with MTV Networks' music brands, but its highly publicized deal with Microsoft had fallen by the wayside as the software company launched its Zune music player and accompanying music store.

Executives from MTV, Real, and Verizon held a joint conference call on Tuesday morning, filled with talk of "alliances" and "joining forces" that evoked superhero Captain Planet or Voltron. "The collaboration of these three companies is like a perfect storm," said Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks' Music/Logo/Films group, who added that they're striving to make Rhapsody America "the best service out there, hands-down."

"The notion of combining with these two marketing behemoths is very, very exciting from our standpoint," said Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks. "This is a relationship that we spent a long time putting together." RealNetworks, which holds the larger stake in Rhapsody America, has been trying to expand its footprint in the music sales world for some time now through high-profile partnerships.

Few details about the revamped Rhapsody were actually disclosed--pricing, for example, or details regarding finances--but the executives hinted that Rhapsody tie-ins will start to appear as part of the MTV Video Music Awards, which will be broadcast from Las Vegas on September 9.

The executives from all three companies talked up the Verizon deal as crucial to the nature of Rhapsody America. "Our audiences have made it crystal clear that they really want their music accessible wherever they might be," Toffler said. Glaser added that over-the-air downloads through V Cast epitomize Real's goal of a "jukebox in the sky," which he said has been the company's aim since it launched the first RealPlayer in 1995.

More importantly, it's a potential arsenal in the fight to catch up with Apple's iTunes store, the inarguable leader in the digital music sales industry: iTunes offers no mobile download capabilities. John Stratton, Verizon's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, reminded those listening to the conference call that V Cast mobile phones now support 4GB of storage and will support eight by the end of the year--an underhanded nod to the storage capacity of Apple's own iPhone.

The formation of Rhapsody America is the latest move in a music industry trend to prime new strategies for an assault on iTunes. Most recently, Universal Music Group announced that it would not be renewing its contract with Apple's music store and that it would be making portions of its catalog available without digital rights management protection to a number of non-iTunes outlets, one of which is Rhapsody.