The ambitious venture, named SpiralFrog, is due to launch in December at a website of the same name, and further details were unveiled yesterday. The deal with Vivendi's Universal Music gives SpiralFrog the right to offer users the full Universal catalog for free, as a result of advertising support. Universal artists include Mariah Carey, Eminem, U2 and Kanye West.
SpiralFrog seeks to license the catalogs of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and EMI Group as well. "We're in discussions and they're keen to talk to us," said Lance Ford, chief marketing officer of Spiral Frog. "They already see us as partners."
Not the only one
Mr. Kent's firm is not the only one experimenting with free downloads. The latest incarnation of Napster, which launched in May, allows consumers to listen to up to five tracks for free while they view advertising. Meanwhile, video-sharing sites such as YouTube have held talks with music companies about showing music videos, which would be supported by advertising.
"Free and legal" runs contrary to popular trends in the music-download space, as illegal file-sharing and iTunes' pay service remain the most popular options for consumers.
SpiralFrog is experimenting with targeted ads, soliciting users' ages, genders, ZIP codes and e-mail addresses. Perry Ellis, the fashion company, is the first advertiser to sign on. "Our audience is into music and can be more easily reached on the web," said Oscar Feldenkreis, president of Perry Ellis International. Levi's, Aeropostale and Benetton also have expressed interest, Mr. Kent said.
Willingness to experiment
The venture reflects music companies' willingness to experiment as they try to capture some profit from the boom in digital distribution still dominated by illegal file-sharing networks.
Digital-rights-management technology is built in to all audio and video content as part of measures SpiralFrog and its partners are taking to address piracy.
"We want to provide the best environment for everyone -- our partners and the recording artists, as well as consumers," Mr. Kent, SpiralFrog's CEO, said in a statement. "Piracy continues to be one of the biggest issues facing the music industry, where illegal file-sharing and unauthorized CD burning are the prime means of music piracy. Digital-rights protection will help us combat piracy and provide peace of mind for the record labels and the artists."