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Virgin & Universal Team For DRM Free Unlimited Music Downloads

Gordon Kelly by

Virgin & Universal Team For DRM Free Unlimited Music Downloads

I've long said the only way to reduce piracy is to make downloading legal content both affordable and - vitally - easier than illegal content...

To this end Virgin Media has stepped in to team up with Universal Music to offer what it is calls the "world's first unlimited music download subscription service". Of course it isn't. That title goes to Nokia's Comes With Music - but more importantly, all Virgin's content will be DRM free.

In short this means unlimited downloads with no restrictions: it can be used on any device - MP3 player, phone, PMP or PC - and added to any music library. Virgin is also negotiating with other UK major and independent labels to expand the available catalogue before launch.

"In terms of both convenience and value, our new music service will be superior to anything that's available online today and provides a fair deal for both consumers and artists," said Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett. "There is no better example of Virgin Media's commitment to harnessing digital technology to give customers what they want, when they want and how they want."

Universal Music CEO Lucian Grainge added "Britain has a world-class reputation for artists and music. Now British consumers will have access to a world-class digital music service. I believe this puts all of us at the forefront of a new era."

Yes fellas, it just might. Still, we're into caveat time and since we're never a site to take things at face value I've done some digging and discovered a couple of key points (as well as a fabulous old picture of Richard Branson with Mick Jagger).

The biggie is to use the service you will need to be a Virgin Media broadband subscriber. Yes, this immediately knocks out the majority of potential customers out there but the Virgin explained to me this was a business decision. Whether you wish to develop any conspiracy theories about monitoring of potential P2P follow-up behaviour is entirely up to you.

Secondly is price and while no service has been announced I've managed to attain that it will cost between £15 and £20 per month. The launch date is also some way off with Virgin hoping to have it up and running before Christmas. Thirdly - and a major aspect for music lovers - is bitrate. Again this was absent from the announcement but I've learnt Virgin is toying with the smart idea of offering music at a choice of bitrates. Hot favourite for the maximum bitrate is currently 256kbps but I did stress to them that 320kbps is where all the cool kids play these days!

Lastly, don't expect Virgin's rivals to be sitting still over this. Record labels are fair weather friends and once the precedent is negotiated for a new type of service with one company they will usually deal quickly with others. Expect Amazon, Apple, 7Digital et al to be on the phone engaged in heated discussions as we speak.

So an exciting day for music and an important one. Let's pray they get this right...


Press Release

Go to comments


June 16, 2009, 12:56 am

Curious - was anything mentioned on what proportion of the Universal catalog will be made available, and what minimum subscription period will Virgin Media impose?


June 16, 2009, 2:38 am

There are some worrying things about the information you discovered dear writer.. If they're looking at £15-20/month with only one music label, what will happen when more come on board?

Will they count the content downloaded via this service as part of their fair usage/throttling allowance?


June 16, 2009, 2:43 am


Things like this make me so angry, and it's depressing to see a whole industry go in completely the wrong direction for so long (although they're not the only ones that seem to be confounded by this whole 'Internet' thing).

The formula for the most successful online music service imaginable has been sitting there for so long and still no one will offer it to us (large variety of music in 320kbps MP3/AAC or (preferably) FLAC format, DRM free, no other restrictions or limitations, at a reasonable(!) price (no, not giving me a physical copy, album artwork etc. etc. doesn't mean you can charge me more for it!)).

It's just such an obvious solution that the market is crying out for, yet everyone is too busy in their executive boardrooms lining their own pockets to go and put it out there. If they don't give people what they want and make it easy for them to get it then they only have themselves to blame, not the pirates, for poor sales.

So in the end, it's close but not close enough Virgin. You're still not getting my money, but thanks for playing. Now go and make it better and we'll talk.

Sorry for the (slightly misdirected) rant, but I feel better now. Carry on.


June 16, 2009, 5:04 am

I will still continue to buy CD's until someone allows the download of CD (or near CD) quality sound in a lossless format. I understand I'm in the minority, but I am fairly certain their is a market for it.


June 16, 2009, 7:16 am

This definitely sounds like a step in the right direction if they manage to get all the major labels on side. If not I can see it only having limited appeal.

Hopefully, if it proves successful, they'll introduce tiered packages with the amount you can download depending on the package. I only buy less then £10 worth of music from iTunes/Amazon every month, so paying £15-20 - even for unlimited downloading - doesn't make much sense to me. Only if the quality was that much better, (320kps or lossless as suggested) would it be worth the subscription fee.

Also, nice picture. At first I thought it was a Flight of the Conchords pic, as Branson looks so much like Jermaine in it :)


June 16, 2009, 8:34 am

@ThaDon - other labels will be part of the price. Yes, it will count towards usage limits. PS - Gordon is fine ;)

@smc8788 - erm, what you propose: 320kbps DRM unlimited downloads at a flat monthly proce is exactly what Virgin is proposing. I'm confused by your comment.

@Martyn - as an audiophile I'd challenge you to a blind test between lossless and 320kbps. It's virtually indistinguishable.

@Pbryanw - I'm the only person in the world who doesn't get the appeal of Flight of the Concordes ;)


June 16, 2009, 3:12 pm

£20 for unlimited access to, for arguments sake, a catalogue the size of the iTunes library? Seems perfectly fair to me providing they do actually make it DRM free and transferable to whatever devices / formats I want. But I can see a slight problem here... Surely everyone's going to sign up for the minimum duration, suck EVERYTHING they want from the back catalogue as quickly as possible and then cancel. Not entirely sure how you get around that if it's an unlimited service.


June 16, 2009, 3:53 pm

@Gordon re: Flight of the Conchords....no, you aren't the only one!


June 16, 2009, 4:18 pm

@ Gordon - Uh, I'm not a Virgin Media broadband subscriber ;)


June 16, 2009, 5:29 pm

@BOFH_UK - I suspect it's a minimum term contract... besides new music is consistently released month in month out ;)

@smc8788 ah - didn't get from your rant that it was the broadband subscriber bit you were taking issue with. I suspect it'll eventually expand out to those not on its cable network but expect others to soon copy this model anyway...


June 17, 2009, 6:27 pm

If they can really offer AAC 320kbps DRM free catalogue for £250 a year - I will give it some serious consideration. What I think is interesting is that Virgin Media are trying to expand into other services rather than the traditional role of an ISP. ISPs have been kicking up a fuss about content providers for a while now (e.g. BT vs iPlayer). A key point being that the service is only being offered bb subscribers. If this a sign of things to come things could get very interesting.

Ben 3

June 19, 2009, 5:35 am

@Gordon - the press release doesn't say it's for Virgin *cable* broadband, just Virgin broadband. So I would say expect it to be accessable via Virgin ADSL from the start.

The big question would be is can you get it via mobile broadband or not?

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