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MTVi, RioPort put toll on music downloads

The companies plan to offer paid song downloads through MTVi's Web sites, the latest example of how online music is quickly evolving from its free file-swapping days.

MTVi Group and infrastructure company RioPort said Wednesday that they would offer paid song downloads through MTVi's Web sites, the latest example of how online music is quickly evolving from its free file-swapping days.

Songs from the download catalogs of all five major record labels will be offered via Internet radio services on MTVi. Combined, the labels have about 8,000 songs available for download; around 50 percent initially will be offered through this deal.

MTVi will let people download certain songs through its Radio MTV.com and VH1atWork Radio services. When listeners hear songs they like, which happen to be the songs for sale, they can purchase the tracks in digital form.

Songs will range from 99 cents to $2.49 for singles and will cost $9.99 to $17.99 for entire albums through RioPort.

"We want to make it as easy as possible to discover music that's tied to our on-air programming or our Internet-only channel and then to purchase music," said Nicholas Butterworth, chief executive of MTVi, the online arm of Viacom's cable music channel.

The partnership falls at an interesting time in the online music industry's turbulent existence. The record industry has fought a bitter war against file-swapping service Napster for alleged copyright violations. Napster has captured millions of members by letting them trade songs for free, thus putting a temporary stake into the heart of the major labels' efforts to sell songs directly online.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing about the future of online music. Legislators have criticized record industry executives for dragging their heels in finding a marketplace solution to file-swapping threats. Nonetheless, executives told senators that the February decision against Napster by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has helped them find more common ground in striking their own partnerships.

Already, Warner Music Group, EMI Recorded Music, BMG Entertainment and RealNetworks said they will create a new company, MusicNet, to develop a music subscription service. The other two major labels, Sony Music Group and Universal Music Group, have formed their own subscription company dubbed Duet.

Labels have attempted individual downloads before. But none of their initiatives have taken off, mainly because of the sweeping popularity of Napster, which lets people download for free using a single digital format: MP3.

The RioPort offering supports many different formats. For streaming audio, it supports Microsoft's Windows Media and RealNetworks' RealAudio. For downloads, it supports Windows Media and InterTrust. These formats protect audio files from being illegally distributed but could be a hassle for people to switch around.

RioPort CEO Jim Long said the audio format would depend on what the labels feel comfortable using.

Ted Cohen, vice president for new media at EMI, said the days of free music online are nearing an end. Now, music fans will have to pay like they always had before the Web.

"I think there is an end in sight," Cohen said about free access to music online.