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Ultimate Band List tries MP3

Net music veteran the Ultimate Band List is keeping up with the times, having launched an MP3 area on its popular site.

Despite a rocky start, Net music veteran the Ultimate Band List has high hopes for its new MP3 area.

The Ultimate Band List (UBL) quietly rolled out its "MP3s on UBL" resource two weeks ago, but it was put to the test on Friday when it offered a one-day-only track for download by electronica band Underworld.

The site was inundated with users trying to get the track--roughly 4,000 users downloaded the song--though the MP3 page got more than 100,000 page views in the first 8 hours. Many users reported delays or were locked out of the site altogether, according to Steve Rennie, president of the UBL.

"It was a long Friday," Rennie said, "but for all the right reasons."

The launch comes as IBM, Sony Music Entertainment, Time Warner's Warner Music unit, and other entertainment and technology interests test the Madison Project, which aims to allow people to buy and download music online securely, and the Recording Industry Association of America is touting its Secure Digital Music Initiative, a project that seeks to create a specification that could be embedded into any music distribution technology to protect copyright holders' property.

Rennie noted that for all the antipiracy efforts surrounding online music distribution and the controversy that has hovered over MP3, "at the operating level of the labels, [music executives] are worried about how to 'break' new bands." That is the music industry's real concern, he told CNET News.com, because "If you don't break new bands, you don't have anything to protect."

The UBL was not discouraged by its rocky foray into the largely uncharted MP3 (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3) waters, but rather saw it as affirmation that its long-held goal to introduce new bands to music fans on the Web would be boosted by the controversial format, Rennie said.

MP3 compresses high-quality sound files so they can be downloaded quickly onto a PC hard drive. Its popularity online has made it a de facto standard for downloading music, observers say, although it has faced roadblocks to date by many in the mainstream recording industry because it is favored by music pirates and often is used to post unauthorized copies of copyright-protected music online.

But the format has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts lately, with former opponents to MP3 getting caught up in its momentum. Just after music download, news, and community site MP3.com got an $11 million investment from the likes of high-profile venture firm Sequoia Capital last month, portal Lycos said it would offer an MP3 database, the Harry Fox Agency issued Internet record company GoodNoise the first mechanical license for delivering songs via MP3, and label Rykodisc (whose artists include Frank Zappa and Morphine) entered a licensing agreement with GoodNoise to promote and sell music from its catalog via MP3.

So it is not a surprise that the UBL, which began as a directory of bands but has evolved into offering broader content and e-commerce, is offering songs for download via MP3. After all, noted Rennie, "We're going to serve up the music the way [the fans] want it."

The UBL, as "by far, one of the old guard" among Net music sites, enjoys "a good solid base of consumers that rely on them," noted Mark Hardie, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

While he sees the UBL's foray into MP3 as just "positioning," since "the digital distribution market is still nothing right now" financially, Hardie said the onslaught the site experienced "just goes to show that they underestimate their audience.

"The UBL is one of the oldest sites out there, and they have a large audience," Hardie added. "If you offer them something unique, they're going to come a calling."

He likened the UBL's experience to that of Broadcast.com in Webcasting the Victoria's Secret lingerie fashion show last week, noting that being unprepared for a glut of users "is just going to disappoint the audience."

Still, there are worse problems than having too many people rushing to your site. And although offline music brands such as MTV, Rolling Stone, and others have been partnering or otherwise beefing up their online offerings as the Web has matured, the UBL has enjoyed significant success, especially considering that it has done little to market itself, Rennie pointed out.

Hardie agreed, noting that: "There are no set players in digital distribution yet. [The UBL] is as likely as anyone else to be in the mix."

And in the mix it is, coming in just behind MTV in unique users for the month of December, according to Media Metrix. MTV had roughly 1.16 million visitors; the UBL had 984,000; JamTV had 736,000; and Launch Media had 620,000. MP3.com, generally considered the hub site for MP3 downloads and information, had 601,000 unique visitors, according to Media Metrix. Plus, Rennie noted, the UBL has "seen a 20 percent increase in traffic from the top of the new year."

Hardie suggested that the UBL consider outsourcing to cope with the traffic.

"If they're going to offer MP3s for download, they should offload it," he said. "But there's a cost associated with that. Getting someone else to host it is going to cost some dollars, and they may not get those dollars back."

But Rennie said outsourcing is not in the plan for the UBL, which is working on an "evolution" that will include upgrades to the site's backbone. No date has been set for those changes, he said.