Record giant EMI has revealed ambitious plans to offer more than 140,000 of its tracks online, the latest and most significant attempt by the music industry to counter free peer-to-peer music downloading services.
More than 20 online music retailers, including HMV, Freeserve and MSN, have signed up to the Europe-wide scheme, which will enable consumers to burn tracks on to CD-Roms, copy tracks on to portable players and buy singles before they are released in stores.
Analysts believe music will be one of the main content areas that consumers will be prepared to pay for, driving up demand for high speed internet services.
The music industry has been heavily criticised for its reaction to free download services, such as Napster and Kazaa. Rather than focusing all their attention on shutting these services down, critics said, record labels should embrace the internet as an alternative distribution channel.
The scale of the EMI deal - the largest music download initiative by a record company in Europe to date - would suggest the major labels are beginning to change their approach.
"This is a significant initiative because it brings many new features to the online offering," said Tony Wadsworth, chairman and chief executive officer of EMI Recorded Music in the UK and Ireland. "EMI has a vast digital catalogue and is now providing consumers with the music they want in a way that is faster, safer and more adaptable than is currently available on any of the current service - and it is legal."
All of the launch retailers will use the technology platform of online distributor OD2, while each track will include Digital Rights Management technology, designed to prevent consumers paying once for a track and then distributing them for free.