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Free legal music downloads in time for Christmas

Advert-powered 'iTunes killer' takes to the stage

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It had to happen. A new legal music download service will be launched in December which will offer MP3s free at the point of delivery. New York-based Spiralfrog says its site will be fully funded by advertising.

The firm has some heavyweight backing in the shape of Vivendi Universal Music Group. Research apparently revealed consumers were willing to suffer ads for products relevant to them in exchange for free tunes.

Spiralfrog said it will make the entire Universal back catalogue available at no charge, including current hit parade favourites like Razorlight and Johnny Hallyday, together with its roster of classics from the likes of Stevie Wonder. Independent labels will be hosted too, along with video content.

The International Federation of Phonographic Industries estimates there's currently 40 illegal downloads to every single legal one. Spiralfrog will be pitching at the tech-savvy 13 to 34-year-old demographic. Spiralfrog CEO Robin Kent said: "Offering young consumers an easy-to-use alternative to pirated music sites will be compelling."

Kent is a former Saatchi & Saatchi advertising executive. The CTO is Vesa Suomalainen, the Finn responsible for managing the development of Microsoft Host Integration Server. Strategy is being handled by Robert Goodale, the former CEO of Ultrastar, David Bowie's online music communities venture.

The standard download charge at iTunes is currently at £0.79 or $0.99 per track. Whether Spiralfrog's entry will prompt a rethink at the dominant player remains to be seen, but industry watchers are already pondering the implications. Ovum analyst Michele Mackenzie said: "There is no mention of which audio codec or DRM solution will be used, although it is very likely that the record labels will insist on some DRM being in place.

"Few service providers are currently in a position to provide the large audiences that advertisers require, and few pure music providers have the heritage of building a business funded by advertising."

The nascent firm's announcement is attracting more excited speculation from mainstream newspapers and the BBC. If it indeed becomes a major force, the rest of the "big four" record companies - Sony BMG, Warner and EMI - are sure to follow Universal's lead and clamber on board. And then Apple will really have something to think about. ®

Bootnote

In other music liberalisation news, which will be greeted with equally heavy hearts in some record company boardrooms and the Zune development bunker, The BBC reports yet another application is being offered for download which can bypass the Windows Media Player DRM. It's called Fairuse4wm, and is widely available now...apparently.

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