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iTunes alternative offers 'free' music

It's strange to think that just five years ago a host of peer-to-peer services thrived on the somewhat misguided premise that they had the legal basis to challenge old media's control over music distribution.

Millions of people who refused to pay inflated prices for music used Sean Fanning's original Napster, and for a while, it seemed they might just get away with it.

Fast forward to 2006, and Napster is a legitimate, paid-for service, Apple's iTunes heavily influences the official singles charts and now even Kazaa has gone legit. It's an incredible about turn that puts the music labels back in control, despite the unknown but significant quantity of music that's still downloaded illegally.

And although there remains a price disparity between the cost of a track on iTunes UK and iTunes France, for example, you have to say neither is bad value. For those of us who were willing to pay a few pounds for a vinyl, cassette or CD single in the eighties and nineties, the availability of the UK's top tracks for 79p is a steal.

But the provider of a new service set to go online later this year insists record labels and music fans can have the best of both worlds: free music for the user and advertising revenue for the creator.

SpiralFrog has teamed with Vivendi Universal, one of the world's top music labels, in a scheme that requires music fans to watch an advert – perhaps up to 90 seconds in length – before getting access to the 'free' track. Some people might find advertising even more of a turn-off than the prospect of putting their hands in their pockets, but this could be a step in the right direction to encourage people to download music legally.

Overcoming iTunes' dominance of the digital music market is an extraordinarily tricky task, but ad-supported music downloads could turn out to be a wise PR move. The music industry has to balance its desire to keep customers happy with the need to crack down on those illegally downloading tracks. Whether or not this scheme takes off, executives at Vivendi Universal will now be able to claim they're doing everything they can provide those unwilling to pay for tracks with what they want: something for nothing.

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