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Virgin launches digital music service

'Me too' offering, but leads on price

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Virgin's digital music service, Virgin Digital (VD), opened its virtual doors today, offering US consumers a Napster-style mix of a la carte downloads and an 'all you can eat' monthly subscription package.

VD's initial offering is a beta preview release, presumably because it's based on Microsoft's still-in-beta Windows Media 10, as is Napster's 'Napster to Go' service, which is similarly still in the beta phase.

Like Napster - and contrary to Apple's public thinking, and Microsoft's for that matter - Virgin clearly believes tethered subscriptions are the future of digital music, essentially allowing punters to download as many songs as they like for a regular, monthly fee. VD's pitch is price: $7.99 a month to Napster's $9.99. There are the usual array of online radio stations bundled.

It's not clear from Virgin's press statement whether VD will provide transfers to portable players for that price, or whether the subscription includes CD burning rights. Napster charges extra for both facilities: $14.99 for Napster to Go, and 99c a track for burning. Certainly, from the announcement's wording, burning only appears to be bundled with the a la carte service.

VD's other lead over Napster is its catalogue: one million songs, a target Apple's iTunes Music Store exceeded in the US last month.

VD will initially target the US, and while it has announced European expansion plans, it will still not say when that will take place.

Wherever it launches, Virgin's real strength is its brand. VD may appear too much if a 'me too' service for now, but with in-store promotion and the service's well-known name, it's in a position to make a strong entry into the market. "Virgin Digital will work collaboratively with other Virgin Group companies on cross-marketing and promotions in an effort to mutually extend the breadth, depth and knowledge of music available to customers," the company said.

There's the vexed question of whether consumers will prefer pay-per-download offerings or subscriptions, but since VD offers both, it's not likely to be hindered by a shift in one direction or another. ®

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