August 18, 2003 5:35 AM PDT

Stones: Get yer ya-ya's out online

The Rolling Stones, one of the last marquee holdouts against online music distribution, have finally agreed to sell their music online, according to record label EMI Music.

The venerable rock band's appearance online is both a signal of the increasingly rapid mainstreaming of digital music and a welcome relief to online music companies, which have endured the absence of the Rolling Stones and a few other major bands, such as the Beatles, as a significant missed beat in their appeal to consumers.

The band's music--including the albums "Sticky Fingers," "Exile on Main Street" and "Some Girls"--debuted Monday exclusively on RealNetworks' Rhapsody subscription service, as part of a new promotion that will also see the Rhapsody service distributed and promoted heavily in Best Buy retail stores around the United States. Analysts said the extensive offline promotion was itself a critical sign of the digital medium's maturation.

"The collaborative effort between the physical channel, the digital channel and a large catalogue of content is the most interesting part of this," said Jupiter Research analyst Lee Black. "Best Buy is a powerful distributor, and that's the kind of (collaborative effort) that we haven't seen around marketing digital goods, at least in music."

The three-way promotion among the electronics retail store, the online company and the Rolling Stones' music label illustrates the breakdown of some of the barriers that have blocked widespread adoption of authorized online music services.

Unlike some of the other well-publicized holdouts--most notably the long-disbanded Beatles--the Rolling Stones did not have serious objections to their music being put online. But having a catalogue that spanned nearly 40 years, most of it recorded before digital music rights were even a glimmer in a lawyer's eye, meant that there were complicated contractual issues to work out between the band and its various record labels.

Those rights have now been cleared, and fans will soon be able to buy and download the band's music on most of the major online music sites, a spokeswoman for EMI Music said. The Rolling Stones' earlier label, ABKCO Records, which holds rights to most of the group's 1960s work, will also allow online distribution of the music for the first time, but only in streaming format.

On the retail side, Best Buy's agreement to promote RealNetworks' Rhapsody could signal that the gulf between online and offline retail outlets may be closing, giving traditional consumers more exposure to online products.

Most Best Buy outlets will have kiosks displaying the Rhapsody service throughout their premises, along with racks of CDs that contain its software and a two-week free trial offer. Customers buying broadband service, computers or CDs can add a free Rhapsody disc to their purchase, scan their credit card at the checkout, and start their service automatically.

It's the first time a retail store has put so much effort into promoting an online entertainment service. Best Buy even had 20,000 employees trained in how to use Rhapsody and has integrated the product into its checkout system. The retail store is also using the promotion to sell Rolling Stones CDs, a plan that--if successful for everyone involved--could help ease the concern traditional music stores still have about online services.

Best Buy is not committed to using Rhapsody exclusively. Scott Young, the retail chain's vice president of digital entertainment, said Best Buy would likely offer other co-branded digital music services over time, and could even offer a service of its own. The chain is part of the Echo consortium, which is developing a digital music infrastructure for retail stores.

The Rolling Stones' digital music, which spans 18 albums, is now available on Rhapsody, and it will be available to other services beginning Sept. 2. The Best Buy promotion also launched Monday.

 

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