Universal Music Begins Digital Download Trial

Real businesses are moving into territory explored by the upstarts. On August 2, Universal Music Group, the world's largest record label, announced that it will begin offering, on a trial basis, digital downloads of recordings from its massive catalog. The experiment is scheduled to begin this week, with an initial offering of about 60 songs from artists in several genres, including operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti, jazz guitarist George Benson, and pop band Blink 182.

Offerings will increase weekly, a company announcement stated. The purpose of the experiment is to de-bug the downloading technology and to test the business model, in preparation for digital music businesses to be launched this fall. Universal had previously announced a joint venture with Sony Music Entertainment for a subscription-based digital music service.

Universal is moving into an area pioneered by MP3.com, Napster, and other free-music services. Both MP3.com and Napster have been engaged in protracted and expensive legal battles with the established music industry. Universal's digital format will be known as Bluematter, and will offer more than MP3 audio files, including lyrics, photographs, and biographies of the performers.

Bluematter will be compatible only with RealNetworks Inc.'s RealPlayer digital media playback software, although it might be able to be modified later to make it work with other software players, according to Heather Myers, VP of Global e, Universal's downloadable music unit. To prevent piracy, the downloaded songs will be encrypted with software developed by InterTrust Technologies Corp. With this announcement, Universal is the third of the five major labels to begin offering parts of their catalog as downloads.