Online Music Service to Benefit AIDS in Africa Relief

via NY Times

The music business is known for supporting causes with events like the Live Aid and Live Earth concerts, which generate lots of money and publicity for a relatively short time. But on Monday (RED), a nonprofit organization that arranges for companies to contribute a share of profits on certain products to fight AIDS in Africa, is starting a digital music service for that purpose, and it plans to operate for the long haul. The new venture has already arranged to release new songs from U2, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Emmylou Harris and Death Cab for Cutie.

The still-unnamed service, which is scheduled to start in September, will deliver customers three new pieces of exclusive content a week for a monthly fee of $5. Half of that money will go through (RED) to the Global Fund, and the other half will go to the artists who contribute songs and to their record companies. As with (RED)’s branded products, like a special iPod and Motorola phone, companies will sacrifice part but not all of their profits, and consumers will know that some of the money they spend goes to the AIDS-in-Africa cause.

Each week (RED)’s service will deliver two songs in MP3 format, one from a superstar act like U2, whose frontman, Bono, was a co-founder of (RED), and one from a less established artist. The third piece of content will be a “crackerjack surprise,” a song, video or short story. The idea is to appeal to Internet users who are interested in music but alienated by commercial radio or the chaos of some online music sites.

(RED)’s president for content, Don MacKinnon, previously put together music products for Starbucks, where he had success connecting with adult consumers. “The idea, then as now, is music discovery,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “People want someone to send them music from artists they love as well as acts that are emerging.”

Bono, in an e-mail message, said, “Don MacKinnon might just be the penicillin the ailing music business needs.”

He added, “I have no doubt that some of the music software we are working on at (RED) will help change the way music is received, as well as changing the lives of Africans who will die without the AIDS drugs that (RED) can provide.”

In the past (RED) has been criticized for not funneling enough AIDS relief compared with the amount of money that companies spend promoting the (RED)-branded products. But the organization’s approach is to find businesses that can finance AIDS drugs in a sustainable way. A subscription music service that generates steady revenue would fit that approach.

Many music executives say they believe adults have trouble locating music on the Web that they will enjoy. “There’s so much music out there now, and people aren’t getting their information in the ways that they grew up with,” Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, said. “I think there’s quite an opportunity to help people keep current with music.”

(RED)’s service will provide visuals along with the music. The artists can choose 30 images that they believe evoke their songs, and users will see them as the music plays. Listeners can then choose an image, separate from those chosen by the artists, that they think represents the song; when enough do so, subscribers will be able to play the song to a stream of images that other listeners have chosen.

(RED)’s music software will deliver updates on how the organization’s money is being used in Africa. It will also encourage customers to share the service with friends and colleagues: subscribers can e-mail their friends an offer for a two-week free tryout.

(RED) will get some of its songs from “Spectacle: Elvis Costello With …,” a music-theme talk show that will make its debut on the Sundance Channel this fall. The organization will be able to use almost all the music performed by Mr. Costello and his guests, although it will not necessarily take all of it. “If you’re going to create something,” Mr. Costello said, “it’s good to know that there’s more to it than profit.”

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