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In an effort to cash in on a sector dominated by piracy, Universal Music says it will begin selling music on-line through certain outlets.

Beginning Wednesday, the subsidiary of Paris-based Vivendi Universal will release over 43,000 tracks through a service provided by Liquid Audio Inc. Each track sold though the system will cost around $0.99, and entire albums can be purchased for about $10 each, Universal Music Group (UMG) said.

A total of 28 Web sites will offer facilities where the music can be purchased, including MP3.com, Windows Media, Independent Records, Rolling Stone and Tower Records. Each site that sells a track or an album will receive a cut of the profits from the transaction. For Liquid Audio, the new deal means that the company is now the biggest distributor of paid-for on-line music in the US, with more than 400,000 tracks featuring 17,000 artists and 1,800 record labels.

Among the artists whose music will be available for download are Ashanti, Diana Krall, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nelly, Shaggy, Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow and U2. In fact, along with the announcement, UMG said that it would make Mariah Carey's new single, "Through the Rain," available through the service two weeks before it hits bricks-and-mortar record stores.

"This is a watershed moment," said Larry Kenswil, president, Universal Music Group, eLabs. "Universal is committed to making every recording it controls available for Internet distribution. We have listened to the public, and we are offering the music that people want at a reasonable price that fairly compensates the artists, songwriters and [other] individuals who make their living in the music industry."

"There is nothing that can justify resorting to illegal services to get UMG music on the Internet," Kenswil added.

The announcement from Universal comes just days after music giant EMI said that for its full fiscal year, which ends on 31 March, sales in its music business would be down between 3 per cent and 6 per cent, mostly due to piracy. This news followed an $85 million quarterly loss in Sony's music division last month, which was also blamed on consumers who download music from the Net without paying for it.

Other recent figures from the Recording Industry Association of America show that CD shipments to retailers for the first half of the year were down 6 per cent, from 2001's already depressed numbers. On-line CD sales are said to be especially weak, down 25 per cent, as Net-connected users opt for free downloads instead.

Although the record companies continue to decry on-line music piracy at practically every opportunity, it now seems clear that the five big labels are embracing the Net themselves, a medium that offers clear distribution and cost-saving advantages. Moreover, these labels are now selling music on the Web before it reaches stores, just one of many efforts to lure more users to its paid-for sites.

Earlier this week, Pressplay, a joint venture between Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group, inked a new deal with Warner Music Group, making it the fifth major label providing content to that streaming service.

Meanwhile, MusicNet, the first of the record-label-financed on-line music services, signed a deal to add the catalogues of Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group to its offerings. MusicNet is poised to re-launch next month with an expanded catalogue and new features.

ENN

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