NEW YORK - World Wrestling Entertainment - better-known as the WWE - is ramping up its music initiatives with the formation of the WWE Music Group.

The New York-based operation will concentrate on further connecting the WWE brand with mainstream and under-the-radar music via multimedia platforms.

The WWE Music Group officially kicks off April 2 when WrestleMania 22 commands the stage of Chicago's Allstate Arena. Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child will be on hand to perform "America the Beautiful"; rock band P.O.D. will perform wrestler Rey Mysterio's entrance theme. Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" is the event's theme.

The sold-out event will be available via pay-per-view and as a webcast at wwe.com. To be sure, the WWE reach is far and wide. Its RAW and SmackDown brands (weekly TV shows, PPVs, tours) are household names in more than 100 countries.

Still, even with these numbers, many do not take the WWE brand seriously. In fact, one of general manager Neil Lawi's priorities is to educate major and indie labels, artist managers and music publishers about the ways WWE champions music.

"There has always been a musical element to WWE," says Lawi. "Now, we're taking a more music-centric approach to everything we do."

In the process, the WWE brand is becoming more of a full-fledged entertainment company, encompassing music, TV, film, the internet, ringtones and videogames.

Pop-culture push

WWE executive VP of TV production Kevin Dunn and Lawi stress that, like the music industry, WWE is about entertainment. With its new music division - and with the help of in-house talent and established artists - their aim is to push the WWE brand further into pop culture.

Last spring, WWE champion John Cena scored a hit with his hip-hop debut, "You Can't See Me." Credited to John Cena & Tha Trademarc, the WWE/Columbia album debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200, No. 10 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and No. 3 on Top Rap Albums. It has sold 292,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Music World Entertainment's Mathew Knowles, who manages Williams' career, says tag-teaming his artist with WWE made sense. "WrestleMania has been changing and evolving over the years," Knowles says. "It's become a multicultural, family event -- and that is attractive to us."

Every time WWE works with a mainstream act, like Williams or P.O.D., any stigma associated with WWE is further wrestled to the mat.

P.O.D. has worked with WWE on more than one occasion. Most recently, the group's "Boom" opened WWE's return to NBC with the March 18 two-hour special, "Saturday Night's Main Event."

In May, WWE/Columbia will issue "Wreckless Intent," a compilation featuring P.O.D., Three 6 Mafia, Killswitch Engage and others performing the entrance themes of WWE's superstar wrestlers.

Four months later, 20th Century Fox and WWE Films will release "The Marine," a feature film starring Cena. It will be accompanied by a WWE soundtrack through a label partner yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, Lilian Garcia - the ring announcer for "RAW" - is working on an album with producers George Noriega (Ricky Martin) and Tim Mitchell (Shakira).

- REUTERS/Billboard