Let free tunes ring

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Napster's future may be uncertain, but its practice of making popular music freely available is being embraced by a music company, carmaker and youth-oriented researcher in mobile marketing tours launching this month.

Volkswagen of America is supplying five new Beetles to Universal Music Group for a high-tech road trip supporting its Jimmy & Doug's Farmclub.com label.

The cars have been converted to mobile sound and video studios that roam the country looking for new music acts, beaming samples of live concerts and performances back to headquarters in Los Angeles, where the music appears immediately on Web site farmclubontheroad.com.


Unlike the wildly popular and controversial Napster, which provides free music over the Internet without artists' approval, Farmclub.com offers samples of music free over the Internet with the full cooperation of musicians.

Most of Farmclub's bands are under contract to Universal for the retail sale of music, and Farmclub also promotes music from its signed artists on its weekly cable TV show "Farmclub.com" airing on USA Network.

The Volkswagens' adventures, as they crisscross the U.S. till the end of September, also will be the focus of several segments on the cable TV program for 10 weeks this summer and fall, allowing VW to promote the Beetle to young adults under 25, one of its top targets for the car.

The tour will visit public venues, college campuses, events and simply cruise the nation's streets in search of unsigned bands and new musical talent. Wireless and satellite communications plus mobile recording capabilities allow the Farmclub cars to beam performances directly to the Web site.

Global Positioning System technology also will provide real-time updates of the cars' locations so Web surfers can follow their progress 24 hours a day. The cars' teams of two drivers can receive e-mail and instantaneous messaging while moving, allowing them to locate impromptu performances and auditions.

Farmclub and VW were a perfect match for the promotion because both are "music- and tech-centric," said David Kohl, exec VP-advertising sales at Farmclub. com, which was formed last year.

"Volkswagen has gotten a reputation for using eclectic music in our TV commercials, from drawing attention to artists who are kind of underground, not mainstream megastars," a VW spokesman noted. "We were very attracted to the connection with Farmclub.com because they share the same attitude of spotlighting artists who haven't been discovered yet."

Free music also is one of the key lures for a second tour that hopes to contact 500,000 Generation Y consumers between 13 and 25 years old as it visits concerts, sporting events and campuses over the next 12 months.


The tour is sponsored by Element, a New York-based youth-oriented market research company that uses offline promotions and its Web site (elementusa.com) to get people to participate in surveys that are sold to marketers.

On the Web site, young consumers are asked to answer questionnaires or provide information about their lifestyles, preferences and products they use in exchange for free gifts and coupons mailed to them. For the tour, free music CDs and the chance to sample videogames will be dispensed directly from a Ford Expedition sport-utility vehicle equipped for mobile sampling and survey-gathering.

The Element Expedition is outfitted with DVD and CD equipment, LCD TV screens, videogame platforms and wireless Internet access so visitors can surf Web sites and check e-mail. The tour will visit high-traffic locations around the U.S. for 12 months.

Virgin Music and EA Sports are providing music and videogames that will be sampled on the tour; Element's recent clients have included Levi Strauss & Co., K-Swiss and FCB Worldwide, New York.

"Free music is a big lure for kids, and we're offering a variety of new music samples in exchange for information this audience provides to us," said Kevin Umeh, CEO of the 50-person company he founded last year.

Grassroots tours based on music are one of the most effective ways to reach young audiences, and "meeting Gen Yers on their own turf and getting direct feedback" is a powerful way to get insights from them, Mr. Umeh said, adding, "That's the only way to find out what they're really thinking -- whether it's about musical tastes and fashion trends or media consumption and other key issues."

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