Web music retail market re-mastered

Saudi-owned platform bids to take recording industry distribution 'into the 21st century' .

A Saudi-owned company is set to launch an online music store for the Middle East and Levant that aims to sell legally as many as 3 million tracks without copyright protection. Music Master, to be launched this year, will sell tracks, music videos and albums, and aims to set itself as a leading paid download platform in a market rife with piracy.

The company behind the site, also called Music Master, is the main regional distributor of physical music, meaning CDs and DVDs, for labels such as Universal, Sony, EMI and Warner. But it is now embracing digital distribution. "We have been the leading distributor of international music in the region so we thought we'd take it into the 21st century," said Saeed el Ajou, the managing director at Music Master.

"The physical market is in global decline, it's not just something we see in the Middle East. But it's not a matter of people not wanting music - far from it." Mr el Ajou said the site would feature between 2.5 million and 3 million tracks, with 85 per cent coming from five main international labels. "There will be Arabic content too," he said. "One of the labels we've signed with, EMI, has a very strong Arabic back catalogue. We are in talks with two or three Arabic labels as well."

Mr el Ajou said they included Rotana, the world's largest producer ofArabic music. The pricing of the tracks will be "similar to what you get on iTunes", he said. Users of Music Master will not need to download software and content will befree of Digital Rights Management, Mr el Ajou said. "That's something we insisted on [in our negotiations with record labels]," he said. "Your competition at the end of the day is illegal music … We've managed to get the labels to take a very different view [on copyright protection]."

At launch, there will be no association between Music Master and a mobile device or computer maker, but Mr el Ajou said the company had "plans in place to team up with device manufacturers". Other plans included branded concerts, said Edward Bagnall, the marketing and communications manager at Music Master. "We're going to try to have quite an intense relationship with our fans," Mr Bagnall said.

"You'll see Music Master branded concerts here and we'll bring some pretty big artists to the region." He said the company would directly pay royalties to recording labels, who will "look after all the royalties and publishing rights". Music Master is owned by the Saudi businessman Ghassan el Ajou. Industry analysts said there was room in the market for an online store. There was no iTunes store in the Middle East but the Nokia Music Store had proved popular.

Other contenders include Getmo Arabia, a joint venture of Arvato Mobile Middle East (AMME) and Abu Dhabi Media Company, which owns and publishes The National. "We think there's room for someone to emerge as the dominant force in the digital music market," said Hussain Spek Yoosuf, the managing director of Fairwood Music Arabia, which represents the rights of Universal Music Publishing and EMI Music Publishing in the UAE.

"… There's a lot of debate on what the new model for selling music will be. I think there is no one solution. "The way of the future is that there are 15 models to buying music, with each geared towards a different demographic. Of those, four or five will be dominant." bflanagan@thenational.ae