Label tests MP3 in song sale

Maverick Records and Vivendi Universal's online division are releasing a single track in the unprotected MP3 format--and they're hoping people will pay to hear it.

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In what may be a first for a major-label recording artist, Maverick Records and Vivendi Universal's online division are asking listeners to pay just under a dollar for an unprotected MP3 version of a new single.

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The companies put the track, a dance version of "Earth" by Meshell Ndegeocello, online Thursday on sites run by Vivendi Universal Net USA, including MP3.com, RollingStone.com, GetMusic.com and MP4.com. People can purchase the file for 99 cents and then burn the song to a CD-ROM disc or transfer it to a portable device. The companies said subscribers of EMusic's MP3 music service will be able to download the track as part of their memberships.

Ndegeocello is releasing a new album, "Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape," June 4 on Maverick/Warner Bros. Records. The original version of "Earth" will appear on the album.

Analysts consider the attempt to sell an MP3 track a bold step for a major label. In the past, many record companies and musicians have avoided the MP3 format, which compresses standard audio tracks into smaller sizes without significantly compromising sound quality, because of concerns that its lack of copy-protection schemes would lead to digital piracy.

Stopping illegal copies of songs has become a mission for the record industry, which has seen global music sales drop 5 percent each of the last two years. Industry groups have blamed free music swapping via the Internet for much of the lost sales. The International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI) said that in 2001 the sale of illegal recordings exceeded $4.2 billion worldwide, not including losses due to online piracy.

Phil Benyola, a digital media research associate for investment company Raymond James Financial, called the MP3 sale an "innovative" marketing maneuver. But he warned it might not be a successful one.

"It's very significant that they would endorse the MP3 format since MP3 has always been a dirty word to the labels. Up until now, everything they have offered has been a secure format," Benyola said.

But "I think you'll be able to count the number of sales on one hand," he added. "As soon as one person gets it, it's all over the (peer-to-peer) networks for free."

Record companies have lashed out against illegal online song trading by working to lock down their recordings with a variety of copy-protection technologies. But consumers have shown little interest in spending money on music that can be played in a limited group of devices or heard a specific number of times. In addition, some efforts to protect music have backfired as discs refused to work in certain music players or crashed some computers.

The companies behind the promotion are hoping people will agree to pay a small fee in return for a track they can legally listen to any place, any time--and that they'll like the single so much they will buy the full album.

Using the MP3 format is "a small step, but I think it's a symbolic step," said Steve Grady, general manager of EMusic. "I think there are a lot of fans that are loyal to these artists and are willing to pay a reasonable price for a download or a CD."

"Sure, there is always a concern of piracy; there's always the concern of people illegally transferring things. But we feel the best way to combat that is by giving people a legitimate alternative, and this is a test to make that alternative available to them," Grady said.