Google off to lavish start with online music store

By Guy Adams

Internet giant signs up major record firms to be cool alternative to Apple's iTunes

One host was a fake rock 'n' roll star. Another was a mysterious French street artist. The room was expected to be filled with neon lights, expensive haircuts and freeloading youths in skinny jeans.

To the delight of almost everyone present, one of the world's richest internet companies was footing the bill.

Google announced its intention to become a major player in the music industry yesterday, with a lavish but surreal event to launch an online record store. The company hopes to provide a credible alternative to Apple's iTunes, which dominates the lucrative digital download market.

Customers of the new store, Google Music, will be able to buy and store songs online for between US$1 and US$1.29 ($1.30 and $1.70) each, and listen to them on devices that use the firm's Android platform. They will also be allowed to temporarily lend items from their collection to friends, via the Google Plus social network.

Invitations to the launch were signed by Nigel Tufnel, the star of the fictitious rock band Spinal Tap. It was to be held at the Hollywood gallery of Mr Brainwash, an opaque Frenchman at the centre of the street artist Banksy's documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. Although Mr Brainwash's entire oeuvre is arguably a postmodern joke, Google is deadly serious.

It has already struck multimillion-dollar distribution deals with Sony, Universal and EMI. And with the participation of independent labels it will be able to go live with about three-quarters of the world's records on the store's virtual shelves.

Among major record firms, only Warner has yet to come on board. The firm controls roughly 20 per cent of the global market but is said to be reluctant to complete a deal because of disagreements with Google over pricing and anti-piracy measures.

Google has a mixed record on new product launches, but it certainly knows to throw a highly original party. Last night's guests were promised live performances from an eclectic collection of artists including Drake, Maroon 5 and Busta Rhymes. Given the preponderance of cult performers who are past their commercial peak, the event may well have been designed to style Google as the little guy in a "David versus Goliath" battle for an online music market dominated by Apple.

The firm's marketers used a similar tactic to promote Android, which is now a serious competitor to the iPhone.

Apple's iTunes, launched in 2003, now accounts for roughly two-thirds of all download sales, and around 30 per cent of the record industry's global income. Consumer advocates will applaud any attempt to compete with it.

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