Record companies are hoping the mobile phone will help save the radio star after technology was unveiled yesterday that could allow listeners to buy any song playing on any station at the touch of a button. UBC Media Group, the company that developed the technology, said a trial would begin next month in the Birmingham area, with a full consumer launch expected within 12 months.
Record labels, buffeted by digital piracy in recent years, and commercial radio stations suffering an advertising drain to the internet hope the digital solution will help them to fight back. But it will pose another challenge to high street record stores, already struggling to compete with the convenience of digital downloads.
The proposed service uses the same technology employed to deliver digital radio to 3m sets in the UK, with mobile phones containing the necessary chips expected to be on the market soon.
UBC’s interactive division has teamed up with the main record labels, the Chrysalis radio group that runs stations such as Heart and Galaxy, and technology firms to launch the new business. It expects it to be worth £93m within six years.
While tuning in to digital radio stations through headphones, listeners will be able to click a « buy » button on their phone and have the track downloaded to their phone. Each track will cost around £1.25, with one copy being transferred to the phone and a second copy made available for download to a computer or iPod-type device.
At launch, customers will be expected to buy pre-pay vouchers that will entitle them to £10 or £20 worth of tracks. In future, they could also be billed via their mobile phone bill or their bank account.
UBC’s chief executive, Simon Cole, said the company had raised £3m to market the « killer » idea, which had been in development for four years since UBC began acquiring national and regional data spectrum on digital radio. « We decided this was the model to go with because of its simplicity. I hear a song, I like it, I buy it. I get it on my device and I get a copy sent to me at home, » he said.
All the major record labels were on board, he said, and he expected it to act as a « wake-up call » for other commercial radio groups, suffering from an advertising slump and a resurgent BBC, to sign up. In future, he expected the technology to appear in conventional digital radios in the kitchen or living room.
Mobile networks, which spent billions acquiring, building and marketing high speed 3G networks, have enjoyed mixed results in persuading customers to download tracks directly to their phones. But analysts expect demand to increase as phones appear that can store thousands of tracks. Some believe the combination of live radio and mobile downloads could be a boon, as fans negotiating countless available tracks turn to DJs to perform their traditional role as trusted guides to new music. They see the move by UBC, which is also a radio producer and a partner with Channel 4 in the digital station OneWord, as the latest in a multi-billion pound skirmish for control of the mobile entertainment industry.
Mobile operators already offer TV channels, video downloads and music services over their 3G networks, while others are developing rival services based on the same digital television and radio spectrum utilised by UBC.
Mr Cole did not expect the new phones to replace digital players such as the hugely popular iPod, but thought the two would live side by side. The losers, he predicted, would be the high street record stores. UK digital music sales reached £84m last year and continue to boom.
The BBC must fundamentally change to meet the challenges of an age where people demand content « anytime, anyplace, anywhere » on a variety of devices, not just TV or radio, its director general, Mark Thompson, said in April. It plans to launch the BBC iPlayer, giving on-demand access to any of its TV or radio programmes from the past seven days. Some archived programmes will also be free, while others will be sold.
BT will this autumn launch BT Vision, a set top box offering Freeview TV alongside pay per view services via a high speed internet link. The broadband arm of mobile operator Orange will also launch an internet television service delivered to the television. BSkyB is expected to launch a similar service.
Channel 4 will today begin « simulcasting » its channels live on the internet, the first UK broadcaster to do so. This autumn it will launch three new video on demand services; one will offer viewers the chance to catch up on programmes they have missed on Channel 4, More4 and E4, a second will offer movie downloads, and the third will concentrate on music videos and live performances.
Mobile operators have already had success selling music and TV programmes over their 3G networks; 3 has sold more than 15m music videos and says it sells more than 1m audio and video tracks a month. Vodafone has teamed up with BSkyB and others to launch mobile versions of channels such as Sky News, MTV and Channel 4. Meanwhile, TV companies including Big Brother producer Endemol are starting to make programmes designed to be watched on the move.