boston.com Business your connection to The Boston Globe

Stones open vaults to Net downloads

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Rolling Stones, whose platinum records include "Exile on Main Street," are dropping their self-imposed exile from the digital highway.

The legendary band has agreed to make nearly all of its songs recorded since 1971 available through legitimate online music services for digital download or for copying onto a CD, the band's record label, EMI Music, plans to announce today.

RealNetworks Inc., whose Rhapsody music service will have a two-week exclusive on the Rolling Stones tunes in North America, has also inked a deal with Best Buy Co. to sell the digital music service through the electronics chain's website and 560 stores.

The agreements mark progress in the efforts by record labels to steer Internet users away from illegally swapping copyrighted music through file-sharing software programs like Kazaa and Morpheus.

As part of its crackdown, the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the record labels, has asked Internet service providers to identify customers accused of sharing copyrighted music. The RIAA has said it plans to start suing some of those customers as early as this month.

But even as it wields a heavy stick, the music industry is trying to make its carrot more appealing.

By working with companies like RealNetworks and Apple Computer Inc., record labels hope to offer a wide-enough digital music catalog to entice people to shell out money for music they can probably find for free online.

"This is a tremendous step forward in EMI's very aggressive push to expand and improve legitimate digital music services," David Munns, chairman and CEO of EMI Music North America, said in a prepared statement.

Many of the Rolling Stones's classic songs -- from "Brown Sugar" to "Start Me Up" -- will be available today to subscribers of RealNetworks's Rhapsody service and to On Demand Distribution, the European service known as OD2 whose partners include Microsoft Corp.

RealNetworks's competitors, including BuyMusic.com, Pressplay, and Apple's iTunes Music Store, will have access to the songs in September, said EMI spokeswoman Jeanne Meyer.

But some of the Stones's early hits -- including "Sympathy for the Devil," "Satisfaction," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and "Paint It Black" -- will be harder to find online. They were all recorded for Abkco Records before 1971, when the Rolling Stones jumped to Virgin Records, now owned by EMI. RealNetworks said the Abkco recordings will be available only through Rhapsody's streamed music service, which allows a computer user to listen to the song over the Internet, but not download or copy it onto a CD.

In granting the digital rights to their songs, the Rolling Stones fall out of a shrinking pool of prominent, well-established pop and rock stars who have refused to release the bulk of their catalog to music services like Rhapsody and iTunes Music Store.

While musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Nirvana, and the Beach Boys have made their songs digitally available in the past year, Metallica, the Beatles, and the Beastie Boys have largely held out. Some, like Madonna, have made only complete albums, not singles, available for download.

Sean Ryan, vice president of music for Seattle-based RealNetworks, called the Rolling Stones announcement "the crack in the dam" that might spring the rest.

"They've now seen the maturation of the market," said Ryan, the former CEO of Listen.com, which produces Rhapsody and was acquired by RealNetworks earlier this month. "If bands like the Stones are online, why would anyone else like Madonna not want to be online?"

Mike McGuire, an analyst with the research firm GartnerG2, said several issues -- fears about breaking up albums into downloadable singles, creative control worries, and tangled recording contracts -- have kept some major artists away from digital distribution.

But the entrance of the Stones, whose frontman Mick Jagger is known as one of the shrewdest businessmen in rock 'n' roll, may allay some fears that artists can't make money through digital deals.

"You've got to think that some of the basic business issues have been addressed," McGuire said.

Unlike Apple, which sells downloadable music by the song or album, RealNetworks charges customers a monthly subscription fee for streamed songs, plus 79 cents for each song burned onto a CD. The service has struggled to gain subscribers.

Yet RealNetworks may have won a powerful ally in Best Buy. Starting today the electronics retailer will promote Rhapsody on its website and on interactive kiosks in its stores. RealNetworks says the partnership marks the first time an online music service will be sold in a major bricks-and-mortar store.

Customers "can make a physical connection to the digital world," said Meyer, the EMI spokeswoman.

Chris Gaither can be reached at gaither@globe.com.

SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
 
Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months