Universal, Virgin Hail ‘World First’ Unlimited Music Downloads

LONDON ~ British firm Virgin Media and Universal Music Group announced plans this week for what they said will be the world’s first unlimited downloadable online music subscription service.

For a “small monthly fee”, Virgin Media customers will be able to stream or download as much music as they like and play it on any device when the service launches later this year.

The pre-announced service marks the latest attempt by the battered global music industry to get people to pay for music online, by offering an attractive way of buying it as an alternative to illegal file-sharing.

“I’m thrilled to see Virgin back where it belongs at the heart of music and, once again, breaking the mould,” said Virgin chief Richard Branson, calling it a “world first (that) lays the ground for a truly unique service.

“It will give music fans all the MP3s they want for a small monthly fee whilst supporting the artists whose creativity is the lifeblood of music,” he added.

Music downloaded on the service can be played on iPods or any other MP3 players, mobile phones and computers and will be the customer’s own to keep permanently on any MP3-compatible device.

As well as the unlimited subscription, for an unspecified but “great value” monthly rate, the service will also offer an “entry level” version for customers who download music regularly, but may not want an unlimited service.

Universal and Virgin did not specify when the service will go live, saying they were still in negotiations with “other UK major and independent music labels and publishers to ensure it can offer a complete, compelling catalogue by the time it launches.”

“Britain has a world-class reputation for artists and music. Now British consumers will have access to a world-class digital music service,” said Lucian Grainge, chairman of Universal Music Group International.

“I believe this puts all of us at the forefront of a new era,” he added.

The scale of the task facing the global music industry was underlined by figures published in January, showing that 95 percent of downloads remain illegal.

New business models helped the legal online music sector balloon for a sixth straight year in 2008, growing by 25 percent to US$3.7 billion in trade value, it said.

But some 40 billion music files were still illicitly shared last year, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry in its annual report on the state of digital music.

Also in January, California-based Apple – which has long dominated the legal online music market with its iTunes software and iPod device – announced that every song in its library would be available without anti-piracy software.

Along with that shakeup, in April Apple changed its trademark standard of charging 99 cents per song on iTunes.

The maker of Macintosh computers had steadfastly maintained a 99-cents-per-song price structure at iTunes since it launched the online music and movie shop in 2003.

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