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Subscription-based streaming audio service could win the day

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'Big five' recording company Universal Music Group has begun secret trials of an unlimited access, subscription-based digital music distribution service.

Universal itself won't discuss the trial, but its parent company, Seagram, and the drinks giant's prospective merger partner, Vivendi, have mentioned it during talks with analysts and shareholders, Reuters reports.

The trial apparently provides unlimited access to some 20,000 tracks via a streamed media connection over the Internet. Subscribers, of whom, Reuters reckons there are 5000 - seems a lot to us - can't download and keep the songs they choose to listen to.

Subscription-based services have been touted as an workable alternative to the pay-per-download digital music distribution systems the major labels have been focusing their efforts upon. The arrival of Napster, with its 'all you can eat' approach to downloads, is believed by many observers to have pretty much whacked the original model on the head - punters are now so used to unlimited access, they will no longer put up with a 'single fee, single download' model.

That's certainly one possible motivation behind Universal's trial. The other is the development of Net-based audio-on-demand services of the kind Japanese giant Sony is looking to when it rolls out broadband digital entertainment services next year.

Just as the video market has split between those who want to buy tapes - and now DVDs - to keep and those who simply want to rent movies occasionally, the audio market has traditionally been a sell-through only business. The ability to stream audio provides a way of building a music rental operation without the usual piracy concerns. There are plenty of folk out there who might want to hear, say, the new Radiohead album, but don't want to buy the CD outright in case they find it a mite too depressing. ®

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