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"Gaining insight into consumer preferences for accessing and enjoying legitimate digital music is an important first step in being able to develop new and compelling products and services for music fans."
—Heather Myers, Global e

UMG’S COMMERCIAL DOWNLOAD TESTS: IS THIS THING ON?

"The bluematter Trials" Is Not An Airport Thriller--Though Observers Wonder If UMG’s Online Plan Will Fly
Having been scooped in the press by one of its own partners in a new venture, Universal Music Group today issued its own release on the promised selling of commercial downloads.

After many months of speculation as to the contours of its online-music plans, UMG's release clears things up—somewhat. The focus, for now at least, is on the commencement of trials for bluematter, a proprietary "digital music product" that offers an array of multimedia content in ostensibly secure, downloadable form.

The tests will involve offering these enhanced tracks (with artist bios, photos, lyrics and more) at affiliate sites.

RealNetworks is the digital-delivery partner on this venture, presumably via its RealJukebox 2. Digital security mavens Intertrust and Magex provide encryption and digital-rights management services for the venture; Intertrust dropped its own release yesterday about the project, but steered interested parties to Universal. UMG officials declined to comment until the company could issue its own release.

The trials will center around some 60 tracks from a diverse selection of UMG acts, including Blink 182, Live, 98, Luciano Pavarotti and Marvin Gaye. They'll be available imminently at affiliate sites such as Alliance's thestore24 sites, ARTISTdirect, audiohighway.com and RollingStone.com. Slated to carry tracks in the future are BestBuy.com, Checkout.com, Bolt through Rioport and GetMusic. UMG indicates it will provide customer information at bluematter.com, though the site is currently password-protected.

UMG hopes to drum up consumer interest by offering credits in "digital wallets" (courtesy of Magex) and to translate user input into a more effective product.

Universal continues to emphasize the experimental nature of this step, and while the company's candor about its tentativeness is refreshing, some digital-music observers wonder if this isn't a belated attempt to apply some window dressing to a troubled business model. With the meteoric rise of Napster and related free file-sharing applications, consumers have betrayed little or no interest in paying for downloads. Will customers previously disinclined to pay for digital tracks (especially when constrained by security features) be lured by some text and photos?

"Gaining insight into consumer preferences for accessing and enjoying legitimate digital music is an important first step in being able to develop new and compelling products and services for music fans," says Heather Myers, EVP/GM of UMG digital hothouse Global e.

What remains unclear is whether taking this "first step" will prevent UMG from being left in the dust. The unfolding of the Net-music economy has been much slower than the development of the online music culture, leading many to speculate that the latter will invariably shape the former, despite the intense desire of the terrestrial music biz to keep things "legitimate." Now, can anyone loan us an AmEx card so we can download this here Chumbawamba track?

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