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BMG tunes into the Net with music downloads

The record label will begin selling 100 songs and albums to consumers via downloads from the Internet, the latest digital music initiative from a major label.

BMG Entertainment said Tuesday that it will begin selling 100 songs and albums to consumers via downloads from the Internet, the latest digital music initiative from a major record label.

The Bertelsmann-owned company will charge music fans to download songs from some of its most famous artists, such as Christina Aguilera, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, Santana and Sarah McLachlan. Singles will cost $1.98 to $3.49, full-length albums $9.98 to $14.98, and double CDs $11.98 to $20.98.

The label will distribute its downloadable songs through several partner Web sites, such as Lycos, Artistdirect, GetMusic and RollingStone.com, and through the sites of major retailers, such as Best Buy, Musicland, Tower Records and Wherehouse Music/CheckOut.com.

The announcement follows similar initiatives by rival labels to slowly open their coveted music libraries for online purchases. Already, Sony Music Group, EMI Recorded Music and Universal Music Group have begun selling singles and albums through their Web sites or online retail partners. BMG plans to ink deals with other Web sites and retailers that sell songs from all labels instead of just selling songs from its own site.

"The idea is ultimately to have our content living with the content of Napster wildfire other majors," said Karl Slatoff, vice president of new media at BMG.

Labels have been cautious about releasing works from their prized artists on the Internet. But their online moves have been outflanked by the wildfire popularity of the Napster music-swapping service. Consumers favor Napster because it lets them easily search for songs on other people's hard drives. And unlike the labels' efforts, Napster lets consumers download songs from artists regardless of label affiliation--for free.

But the service's days may be numbered. The record labels are suing Napster, alleging its software promotes piracy of copyrighted works from their artists. Rapper Dr. Dre and heavy metal band Metallica have also brought suits against the company, alleging it promotes unauthorized distribution of their songs.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco is preparing to deliver a ruling in the record industry's case against the file-swapping service. There is no deadline for the court to decide Napster's fate.

Whether Napster wins or loses its high-profile court battle, the phenomenon has caused the labels and online music companies to carefully reassess their businesses. The challenge is to create a service as easy to use and as comprehensive as Napster.

The difficulty is in putting those pieces together. Record labels must be open to letting other companies license their entire music catalogs. Web companies face exorbitant fees to offer these songs, which they may sell to consumers through subscriptions.

In the shadow of Napster's free service, charging consumers to download singles and albums is a lost cause, said Aram Sinnreich, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix. Like listening stations in music superstores, digital downloads can act as marketing devices that drive consumers to purchase physical CDs. But selling individual tracks may not be a winning proposition.

"Labels are never going to successfully sell downloads on their own, and rolling out 100 singles and albums will not make a dent in the gray market activities that consumers are engaged in," Sinnreich said. "It's commendable that BMG wants to at least distribute throughout a number of partner sites, but I'd say it's too little, too late in this case."