Sony BMG will start selling music downloads in the copy-protection-free MP3 format later this month in North America, as even the last holdout among the major record labels crumbled to the growing trend.
Sony BMG Music Entertainment said in a statement that some digital albums will be available through a new download service called Platinum MusicPass starting Jan. 15 in the U.S. and late January in Canada.
A Sony Corp. official in Tokyo, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak officially for Sony BMG, confirmed the company's move toward the MP3 format in the U.S., but said that similar moves aren't in the works in Japan and elsewhere.
Music files in the MP3 format can be copied to computers and burned onto CDs without restriction. They can also be played on most digital music players, including Apple Inc.'s iPod, as well as on personal computers.
As a Japanese electronic manufacturer that also has major entertainment businesses, including its music joint venture with Bertelsmann AG, Sony has long resisted the global trend toward MP3 files.
Tokyo-based Sony had been sticking to what the industry calls Digital Rights Management, or DRM, which includes software coding that prevents copying downloaded music but can also frustrate consumers by limiting the type of device or number of computers on which they can listen.
Copy-protected songs sold through Apple's market-leading iTunes Store generally won't play on devices other than its popular iPod digital player, and iPods won't play DRM-enabled songs bought at rival music stores.
Sony has taken a beating in digital players with the booming popularity of the iPod, even in its home Japanese market.
Sony BMG's MusicPass will offer 37 titles at first, including rock, pop and other genres, according to the company. But people must first buy a card available at 4,500 retail outlets across the U.S., including Best Buy Co. and Target Corp. stores, Sony said.
The $12.99 cards will have an identification number on the back, and consumers will be able to visit an Internet site for MusicPass to download the audio files, Sony BMG said.
"We see MusicPass as a great way to bring digital music to the physical retail space. We believe it will have strong appeal for a broad range of customers, and that it will ultimately expand both the digital and physical markets for music," said Thomas Hesse, president of global digital business and U.S. sales at Sony BMG, in a statement.
Last month, Warner Music Group, which had also resisted selling music online without copy protection, agreed to sell its tunes on Amazon.com Inc.'s digital music store.
Universal Music Group and EMI Music Group PLC agreed earlier to sell large portions of their catalogs as MP3 files, as have many independent labels.
"The introduction of MusicPass is an important part of Sony BMG's ongoing campaign to bring its artists' music to fans in new and innovative ways," Hesse said.
One of the albums that will be offered in the new format is Celine Dion's "Taking Chances." Sony BMG's other artists include Bob Dylan, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Avril Lavigne.