Big labels, Apple seed 'Total Music' for iPods

Sides discuss subscription-like plan

Apple and the major record labels have stepped up negotiations concerning the idea of bringing the "Total Music" concept to iPod devices.

The negotiations, first reported this week and since confirmed by industry sources, were little more than a "discussion" between Universal Music Group's Doug Morris — the champion of the Total Music idea — and Apple CEO Steve Jobs just six months ago.

Sources said Apple in the past month reached out to all four major labels to discuss the prospect in more detail, and negotiations now involve the various digital teams at Apple and the labels.

The Total Music concept involves providing free access to music tied to a specific device in return for a cut of the device price — essentially bundling the cost of about a year's worth of music into the cost of the device at sale.

The first implementation of this strategy was UMG's "Comes With Music" deal with mobile device manufacturer Nokia. The finalization of that deal led to the escalation of negotiations with Apple, sources said.

They stressed, however, that a deal is nowhere near imminent. Of the many questions to be answered: How much would Apple pay the labels for access to the music?

The Financial Times, which first reported the story Tuesday, said Nokia will provide about $80 from each device sold to pay for a year's worth of music, while Apple is offering $20. But on Wednesday, sources dismissed those figures as speculation.

A more difficult question: Which iPod devices would even include the offer, and how? There is a chance that only the iPhone would have access to the Total Music plan. There are questions about whether or how existing iPods would have access to the plan or whether it would be something reserved for an entirely new line of iPods.

Other questions involve the terms of service: How long would users have access to the music downloaded, and what happens to the music once that period ends? But the biggest question is how Apple would be able to implement such a plan in its devices. The record labels almost certainly want to place a limit on either the number of tracks that can be downloaded or the time that users can keep them, both of which would require new technology from Apple to govern. This is similar to a subscription model, which Apple thus far has dismissed outright.

Sources declined to give odds on whether these negotiations will go anywhere. Representatives from Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

The music industry continues to socialize the Total Music concept with other device manufacturers as well, but sources can't say whether those talks are any further along than those with Apple.

Antony Bruno is a contributor to Billboard.