Universal to Offer Free Music Downloads

NEW YORK Universal Music said it would make its entire catalog available as free downloads for portable audio players in a deal with soon-to-launch ad-supported music and video service SpiralFrog.

Universal becomes the first major label to partner with the new company, which is positioned as an alternative to iTunes (where users pay for song downloads). Napster allows users to listen to songs for free after watching ads, but they cannot download the music and must pay for a subscription service or buy the song after five plays.

Former Universal McCann CEO Robin Kent heads New York-based SpiralFrog, which plans to introduce its service later this year. The idea is to combat the popularity, particularly among young consumers, of peer-to-peer services that continue to be a haven of pirated music.

“SpiralFrog’s target audience—people between the ages of 13 and 34—is an advertiser’s dream,” Kent said, in a statement.

SpiralFrog users must watch ads on the site before they can download songs or videos, the company said. (The ad revenue is split with participating music labels.)

Virgin Mobile last month began a program that gives users cell phone minutes in exchange for watching video ads.

Such ad-supported services are particularly attractive for subscription products plagued by piracy. Microsoft, for example, is looking to targeted ads as a way to distribute some of its software programs that are often pirated in developing countries.

“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,” Kent said.