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Internet president steps into top spot

Vivendi Universal taps Robin Richards to head its recently acquired online music site, replacing founder Michael Robertson.

French media giant Vivendi Universal said Thursday that it has tapped Robin Richards to head its recently acquired online music site,

Richards, formerly president of the San Diego, Calif.-based company, replaces founder Michael Robertson as chairman and chief executive. As expected, Robertson will act in an advisory role to Jean-Marie Messier, CEO of Vivendi Universal, according to The company added that Robertson is pursuing other interests and plans to start a separate business.

The announcement comes shortly after Vivendi Universal completed its acquisition of in a deal worth $372 million in cash and stock. stockholders voted Monday in favor of the acquisition; its shares were delisted Tuesday from the Nasdaq Stock Market.

"It probably works out best for everyone," said Phil Benyola, digital media research associate at Raymond James. "Robin Richards obviously has plenty of political clout and obvious amounts of abilities...He seems like the natural replacement, and it does make sense to me also that an entrepreneur like Michael Robertson would be interested in starting over again."

Benyola added that Richards is a natural fit to "take over as the corporate citizen" because Robertson has openly expressed "less than thrilled feelings" about becoming part of a bigger organization.

Robertson could not be immediately reached for comment.

Not only is becoming one component of an international media giant, but Vivendi Universal plans to apply its music-delivery system to Pressplay, a subscription service it is creating with Sony.

Since the Vivendi Universal buyout was announced in May, Robertson has been vocally skeptical of online music subscriptions. He has questioned whether consumers accustomed to free, wholly unrestricted music from Napster and its rivals would be willing to pay for songs--particularly if such services are tied to a PC.

Mobility has been a focus of in recent months, as the company sought easy ways to transfer music files from the Internet to portable MP3 players.'s technology will underlie much of Pressplay's service, but it's not yet clear how much of this vision of bringing music anywhere will be retained.

Still, this will not be's first metamorphosis. Initially, the company attempted to offer independent and unsigned musicians an online venue for their tunes. But after several shifts to its business model, launched an online music-storage system that landed the company, and its outspoken CEO, at the center of a tumultuous copyright lawsuit with major record labels. The court battle has already cost more than $150 million in damages and continues to spawn copycat lawsuits.

Although Robertson has garnered much of the spotlight in the digital music world, analysts said Richards has played a key role at since 1999. Before that, Richards was managing director of and founded Lexi International, a tele-services company, where he served as president and CEO.

"A lot of what they had been doing was (under) the direction of Robin Richards to begin with," said Raymond James' Benyola. He added that Richards focused on bottom-line issues such as building a profitable means of providing music to businesses, as opposed to consumer-oriented services. "It's going to be business as usual."

Richards said in a statement that he welcomes the opportunity to infuse Vivendi Universal with's technology as well as its products and services.

"I am honored to lead into the next phase of its growth," Richards said. " We will stay the course and continue to grow in the digital music space. "