Western Europeans offered pay-per-song music store

Western Europeans are being offered a new iTunes-like digital music store that is accessed through Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media Player 9 Series software.

The pay-per-song service launched Thursday in the U.K. and is being branded by both the MSN Music Club and the Tiscali Music Club. The store draws from On Demand Distribution PLC's (OD2) music catalogue of over 200,000 tracks from the five major labels and a handful of independents.

Users access either music club through the Premium Services tab of the Windows Media Player 9 Series.

While the expanded MSN Music Club launched in the U.K. Thursday, Tiscali SpA, which has music clubs in the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium, will launch new versions of its service in September.

The services are based on a pay-per-song model with tracks priced at £0.75 (AUD$1.80) or £7.99 (AUD$19.50) per album. However, those who choose to subscribe to the music clubs can download tracks cheaper, from as low as £0.62, the companies said.

Microsoft's decision to introduce a pan-European digital music store with partners comes on the heels of Apple Computer Inc.'s success with its iTunes digital music store.

"This is a very significant boost to the European on-line market," said Jupiter Research senior analyst Mark Mulligan. Mulligan said that the offering is important because it offers consumers price consistency and a comprehensive catalogue.

However, it was unclear Thursday whether the new music store would offer track burning and the ability to transfer the songs to portable devices, which are some of the main features of the iTunes service, Mulligan said.

Consumers want ownership of their online music in the same way they own offline music, he said.

MSN and Tiscali representatives were not immediately available Thursday to clarify whether track burning would be offered.

However, consumers should have little trouble accessing the store given that Windows Media Player is in a leading market position, and almost verging on a dominant position, Mulligan said.

This ubiquity could spell trouble for Microsoft in the long run if European Union regulators take issue with the company's market dominance, he noted.

In fact, the European Commission expressed concern earlier this month about Microsoft's bundling of the Media player with its Windows operating system, and said that it may force the company to either separate the player from its OS (operating system) or offer competing products as well.

For now, however, Mulligan believes that the new music store is a significant advance in Europe's digital music market which until now has consisted mostly of subscriptions services.

"This offering has essentially brought the market up to date and simplified the model for European customers," Mulligan said.

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