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EMI signs to Pressplay

One step closer to a better, more competitive digital music model

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EMI has taken the first step toward the creation of a universal digital music delivery platform by licensing its back catalogue to Pressplay, nominally a rival to EMI's joint venture with BMG and Warner, MusicNet.

We say 'nominally' because to all intents and purposes Pressplay and MusicNet actually compete as much as a butcher and a baker do. Sure they both sell food, but since you can't buy pork chops in a baker's shop and you can't buy hot cross buns from a butcher, there's not much in the way of competition between the two.

Equally, while both Pressplay and MusicNet both sell music, because acts are signed to specific labels, you can't, say, buy Bruce Springsteen tracks from MusicNet, because Sony Music - the Boss' label - is allied to Pressplay.

Actually, you can't buy from MusicNet period, or Pressplay, for that matter. Both sell to online retailers, so from an end user perspective, it shouldn't matter a jot who's signed up with who, since both can be bought from Amazon, HMV or whoever, just like High Street music retail.

EMI's move, then, is irrelevant to the consumer. If a retailer wants to offer Iron Maiden tracks, he or she can now source them through Pressplay or MusicNet, but if they want to offer BMG and Sony acts they have to support MusicNet and Pressplay. Pressplay will also offer Vivendi Universal tracks.

EMI's move, however, shows that it, at least, doesn't care who distributes its tracks so long as it makes money out of the sale and users can't share downloaded songs. We can see other major labels following EMI's lead - particularly given they're all having a tough time making money at the moment - most notably Sony.

The upshot will be a kind of Visa/Mastercard system, both vying to deliver the same content to retailers, and winning and losing support on the basis of real competitive issues - technology, customer support, cost - rather than which artists and bands they can provide. And that's surely better for the consumer.

Pressplay plans to sell direct to consumers, and EMI's move will enable it to offer more tracks. But it's not much of a runner. Even with EMI, it will find it hard to compete with retailers offering content from both distributors.

With demand tight right now, of course, BMG and Warner could sign up with Pressplay too. At which point, MusicNet no longer has a role as a separate entity, and we end up with Pressplay as the industry's own distribution channel. That would simplify matters for retailers and allow them to compete more effectively with other retailers. Which, again, is better for buyers.

That said, a single such channel might raise the hackles of anti-trust watchdogs, so expect to see two, parallel channels (ie. Pressplay and MusicNet) for the time being. ®

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