Amazon.com launches music downloads

Amazon.com Inc. jumped into digital music downloads yesterday, offering full-length tracks from 14 big-name artists, including Lyle Lovett, Pavement and the Cowboy Junkies.

Amazon.com Inc. jumped into digital music downloads yesterday, offering full-length tracks from 14 big-name artists, including Lyle Lovett, Pavement and the Cowboy Junkies.

One or more tracks will be offered for free from each artist, in either Liquid Audio, MP3 or both. Greg Hart, product manager for the music initiative, said that Amazon would move into offering paid downloads once a standard for secure distribution has been decided upon.

"It's premature to start selling right now," said Hart. "In the near term, this will help drive sales of physical CDs."

The new section, tabbed "Free Downloads," is being offered based on the success of Amazon.com's prior experiments using digital downloads to promote Sarah McLachlan and Public Enemy.

Last April, a track from Sarah McLachlan's live greatest hits album, Mirrorball, was offered for free download alongside interviews with the artist and an exclusive opportunity to buy her cookbook. Hart said the promotion was an enormous success.

"Within less than a day, the Mirrorball CD rocketed to No. 1 on the site," said Hart. "Sarah has always been a favorite with our customers, so this was a great fit."

Next came a promotion with Public Enemy, who offered tracks from the group's album There's a Poison Goin' On! for download in the MP3 format. Hart said that though the pioneering rap act attracted quite a different audience from Lilith Fair rocker McLachlan, the promotion also drove notable CD sales.

It is no surprise that a promotion involving free music downloads would be a hit with consumers. The MP3 craze has intensified with new consumer products like the portable Rio player and the widely distributed RealJukebox player, which allows users to "rip" CDs into the MP3 format and organize the songs into digital party-mix lists.

Nor were Amazon's prior experiments in the format a surprising development: Both McLachlan and Public Enemy were likely candidates for free, digital-download promotions. McLachlan owns the rights to her music through BMG imprint Network, so Amazon.com didn't have to convince a cautious label to take the plunge. Likewise, Public Enemy's Chuck D has been an outspoken MP3 advocate and is currently signed to new, digital record label Atomic Pop, which encourages free digital distribution as part of its marketing platform.

The major labels -- Universal, BMG, Warner Bros., EMI and Sony -- have been reluctant to promote artists through downloads. Microsoft met with a chilly reception when it tried to negotiate to obtain content for its MS Audio 4.0 format launch in April. (Since then, however, Launch Media scored a win by getting two Beastie Boys singles for free download from Capitol Records in the MS format.) Still, Amazon's new roster of talent comes primarily from independent labels. Pavement is signed to independent record label Matador, and the Cowboy Junkies' album Rarities, B-Sides and Slow, Sad Waltzes is being released on the band's own Latent Recordings.

Exclusivity of content will no doubt drive fans of the various bands to Amazon.com -- especially for bands whose albums are still awaiting release. Of the tracks being offered, several precede the album's release, including Lovett's (out on June 29), Widespread Panic's (August) and McLachlan's (next week). Many of the artists' tracks, including those from Lovett and Widespread Panic, are available exclusively on Amazon.com.

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