CDnow began offering promotional downloads of four songs, including a live version of Sugar Ray's "Every Morning" and songs by the Atomic Fireballs, Martin Sexton, and Jump Little Children.
All four titles are in the Windows Media format, a comparatively new format for online music. Although they are free, the songs expire 15 days after first played.
The debut comes one month after Amazon opened its own downloads area. Amazon has already indicated it plans to sell downloadable songs, but hasn't set a date for that to happen.
CDnow's move is another landmark in the growth of the online music arena, dominated to date by MP3, a readily available format for playing digital music that's controversial because it doesn't offer copyright protection. Anxious to embrace the Net but worried about piracy of MP3 titles, commercial interests have been closely monitoring retail developments.
Unlike its rival's offerings, Amazon's downloads do not expire after use, and are available in MP3 and Liquid Audio format. Earlier this week, the company announced plans to expand its available songs from 25 selections by 14 artists to 37 selections by 22 artists, making the area more robust.
By the end of the month CDnow will be offering about a dozen songs for downloading, according to CDnow chief executive Jason Olim. The company plans to vastly expand those offerings this fall when it opens a digital downloads store, Olim added.
Although he did not pinpoint an opening date, he did say the store would debut with thousands of digital downloads from "front-tier" artists. "Over the next few months, you'll see us take the lead in terms of digital transactions and downloads," Olim said.
Ultimately CDnow plans to make everything in its catalog available for digital download, but it is still working out the details, such as digital formats and cost per download, he said.
CDnow is one of the first e-commerce sites to use the Windows Media format. Virgin Megastores is already using the format to stream music to customers from its Radio Free Virgin site.
Record labels such as Atlantic, Sony, and Capital EMI have also signed onto the format, said Kevin Unangst, lead product manager at Microsoft's streaming media division. All four of the artists featured in CDnow's digital downloads area are Atlantic Records artists.
Olim declined to say what format CDnow will use when it launches its downloads store. "At the end of the day, we will support the formats that users want," he pledged.
When CDnow completed its merger with N2K in March, company chairman Jon Diamond said that digital downloads would be a central feature of the combined Web sites. According to Olim, N2K's Music Boulevard previously sold digital downloads on its site.