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Universal Music Kicks Off Digital Download Plan

Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company, on Wednesday announced it would make more than 43,000 song tracks available for download at retail outlets and music Web sites, opening a new front in the marketing of digital music.

The initiative is aimed at attracting fans who may want to buy songs or albums on a one-off basis online rather than through monthly Internet subscriptions, the alternative the major labels have offered to peer-to-peer song swapping services.

Universal Music, a unit of Vivendi Universal, said the downloads will be burnable to CD and transferable to secure portable devices. The digital tracks will be available for purchase by consumers in the U.S. for 99 cents for individual tracks and $9.99 for albums.

The digital downloads will be available through over 25 retailers and music sites, including Best Buy Co. Inc., Circuit City Stores Inc., MP3.com, Rolling Stone, Tower Records and others.

“This is a direct blow to the peer-to-peer services by providing consumers with a cheap and easy way to get a trusted file,” said P.J. McNealy, analyst with GartnerG2.

The labels all attempted to sell limited digital downloads in the early days of their online efforts, but at about $2.99 or $3.99 a track or higher and with heavy restrictions.

McNealy said he expects the other major labels to wait and see how Universal fares before attempting a similar push.

Universal’s downloading program follows on the heels of a spate of online licensing deals announced last week by members of the recording industry as the sector attempts to lure a fan base to their online products and away from popular, free, unauthorized peer-to-peer services like Morpheus and Kazaa, which it claims has eroded music sales.

Using technology from Liquid Audio Inc., music fans can buy tracks from the UMG digital catalog, including such artists as Eminem, Diana Krall, Jay-Z, Nelly, Shaggy, Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow, and U2.

The digital catalog includes current and catalog releases. Music fans can preview and purchase music tracks in both the Liquid Audio and Microsoft Corp. Windows Media formats.

Universal said it was kicking off the initiative by making the new single from superstar Mariah Carey available online before the release of her upcoming album.

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