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Music label turns to open Net

Despite analysts' skepticism, the thriving digital download community is getting a boost this week from Hollywood Records.

Even as analysts doubt the Net's immediate potential as a channel for direct delivery of music, Hollywood Records is giving it a boost this week in a format that music pirates favor and the record industry hates.

The label, which handles new artists along with soundtracks such as Austin Powers, Face Off, and An American Werewolf in Paris, yesterday released a single by Surfdog Music's neo-swing band Alien Fashion Show on the MP3.com and Dimension Music sites. The song is being offered in MP3 (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3) format--a favorite among Net music fans--as a preview of the band's debut CD, which will be available in stores later this month.

The larger record labels have offered songs for download via the Net before--but they tend to use formats such as those of AT&T's a2b Music or Liquid Audio, which can be encrypted to ensure that the music's use is restricted.

For example, Atlantic Records offered a song by Tori Amos for downloading in April using a2b technology--but it was available only to fans who preordered Amos's CD From the Choirgirl Hotel via Tower Records.

"In marketing music, reaching the music fan often involves a long and winding road--not to mention the tollbooths," Hollywood Records senior vice president and general manager Mark DiDia said in a statement. "In making this music directly available to potential [Alien Fashion Show] fans for free, we're taking a straightforward path to the consumer. Everybody wins."

MP3 has been a thorn in the side of many in the record industry who see it as a threat, mostly because it is the format of choice for music pirates. In May, for instance, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) trade group sued two music archive site operators, alleging they were distributing copyrighted songs without permission.

The site operators claimed they were not profiting from the distribution and said they were fans who wanted to help the artists sell their material. But the RIAA argued it is up to the artists and the labels that handle them to decide how to market and sell the music, and other rights groups such as ASCAP maintain that distributing copyrighted material without permission is a crime whether or not the culprit profits from it.

On the flip side, music sales on the Net have not yet taken off. Neither CD sales online nor distribution of music via the Internet have proven profitable; research firm Jupiter Communications predicts that the latter will bring in a paltry $30 million by 2002, or 2.2 percent of total online music sales. Analysts largely blame the numbers on a lack of interest in downloading music.

But the MP3 community is active, with thousands of fans posting sites, chatting in newsgroups, and otherwise sharing music. The first MP3 Summit was held recently in San Diego. As the MP3.com site points out, "MP3 is an audio compression file format and by itself is not illegal or legal, but like many technologies it can be implemented for both legal and illegal uses.

"It is similar to Zip compression common to most PC users," it continues. "Zip files can be used to distribute copyrighted materials illegally or for legitimate purposes. Some persons use MP3 to distribute unlicensed music, but many use the technology for completely legal applications."

Still, bringing the music industry and the MP3 community together could prove to be a Herculean task. The music industry is known for keeping tight control over distribution of its material, and the MP3 community is largely made up of the Net's information-wants-to-be-free advocates, who have grown accustomed to sharing music files without restrictions.

The Alien Fashion Show song being distributed is "Detroit Swing City," the band's version of Kiss song "Detroit Rock City." Along with downloading the song, fans can view the band's first video, "Rocket 95."