Pay now, hear now

VH1 has begun an e-commerce effort that will allow music fans to hear an album before it's on the market. Starting last week, when a visitor to the network's Web site pre-purchases a new album, VH1 will make a stream of it available to the listener via a service called "Hear Music First."

"The album won't be out until May 1," says Fred Graver, senior vice president and general manager, VH1 Interactive Group, "but, the minute the listener pays for the album, they can begin listening to it on their computer."

The offering of a stream of unreleased material is added ammunition in efforts by VH1 and MTV to gain a place in the delivery of music via the Internet. A deal that MTV Networks recently signed with the five major record labels with the help of MTV's partner, RioPort, will make it possible for visitors to purchase single songs and entire albums for prices ranging from 99 cents to $1.99 for singles and from $11.98 to $18.98 for full albums.

The key enabling technology for streaming the albums is Microsoft Windows Media. "We worked very hard with Windows Media and did a beta test with Eric Clapton's new album a few weeks back," Graver says. "Everyone involved was happy with the sound and security."

Because the music is streamed instead of being sent out as a download, many of the issues of illegal copies' being distributed via e-mail or Napster don't exist. Once a credit-card purchase is confirmed, the buyer is sent a password that enables access to the stream. Only one user can access the stream with a PC at a given moment, so, although the password can be given to friends and family, if someone is already using it, others can't get access.

"The labels and artists are our partners, so we've been talking about a way to move toward digital music distribution for a very long time," says Graver.

Graver acknowledges that there is the potential for a user to record the material and distribute it on the Internet, but that process wouldn't be easy. It would involve microphones, tape or DAT decks, and other equipment that the average listener simply isn't going to get involved with.

"There has always been a 14-year-old kid at the end of the block who would make a copy of an album for you, whether it was reel-to-reel, a cassette or burning a CD," he says. "Part of the thing here is to make it a better experience."

Graver says this move isn't seen as a huge revenue generator. He expects that, by year's end, four or five albums a month will be available through the service.

"We get the revenue for the album through our e-commerce, but it really isn't about the revenue for us," he says. "It's about the brand and what VH1 means to our audience, artists and the labels.

"We'll have tens of thousands of songs available this summer," he adds. "The pricing is set at a level that allows the labels to manage their relationship with their different constituents. And the great thing that RioPort did was work with Microsoft, Universal and Blue Matter so they now have one shopping-cart solution that encompasses the different digital delivery systems."

Hear Music First will still be offered once the album is released. One of the problems in a "want-it-now" society is that purchasing an album online and waiting five or six days for delivery can cause potential customers to head to the record store instead of the Web site. But Hear Music First gives listeners access to the streamed album for seven days as they wait for their copy of it to arrive in the mail.