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MySpace Music morphing into a winning site

MySpace is making a case to be the No. 1 online destination for music.

The social networking site recently unveiled its highly anticipated “MySpace Music” service, a joint venture with the four big labels: EMI Music, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group.

In an industry in flux, it has a settling feeling. Music has been struggling to find its distribution footing, and this platform has the backing of the major labels.

The evolution of social networking has seen Friendster give way to MySpace as the coolest destination, and, in turn, MySpace cede ground to Facebook. But meanwhile, MySpace – which is owned by News Corp. and draws about 120 million users – has gradually remade itself as a music portal.

Initially, bands and artists made profile pages so fans could “friend” their favorite acts. That's grown into an expansive service offering hundreds of thousands of songs.

In the new MySpace Music, the artist pages can stream not just a handful of songs, but as much as their entire catalog. With this kind of broad industry support (a handful of indie labels have also joined, though many haven't), it looks increasingly like most music will soon be available free for streaming.

Almost the entire catalog of Prince, for example, can be listened to with just a few clicks.

How is money made? By advertising, which surrounds the service. It might be an eyesore, but it has little effect on a listener's ears. Labels will get a piece of the ad revenue.

The site also steers those who want to buy music for download (rather than just stream it) to Amazon.com's downloading service, the prime competitor to Apple's iTunes.

The largest music retailer, online or off, is still iTunes, which has a collection of 8.5million songs. At this stage, MySpace's offerings are just a few hundred thousand, but that number will likely grow if music labels continue to believe in the service.

One might argue that it's the leap of faith the labels should have made several years ago. It's an acknowledgment that music has to essentially be given away in order for it to make money in the digital age.

The service will eventually offer artist merchandise and concert tickets. Users now can make playlists of up to 100 songs and embed them onto their profiles.

MySpace Music has growing to do, but it might offer the music industry the equivalent of what Hulu.com is for television. Hulu was the first substantial video-streaming site to get major support from the studios, and it has proven to be the superior online destination for television shows.

Streaming is increasingly the way professional content is trying to make a living online. Now it's just a matter of whether the ad dollars follow.

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