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KDDI's song clip download service for the cellphone could be the next hot item in mobile content.

by Steve Myers

KDDI's long-awaited song clip download service for mobile phones, launched in December, allows users to download 15- to 30-second MP3 clips of hit songs (dubbed chaku-uta in Japanese) onto the newest au handsets. At a time when Japanese ringtone providers are struggling with rising costs, fierce competition and dwindling subscriber numbers, chaku-uta is being touted by some record companies as the next big thing in mobile content.

The new chaku-uta download service is called Record Gaisha Chokuei and is run by Label Mobile. Formed in July 2001, Label Mobile is a joint venture including several major Japanese record labels, including Avex, Sony Music Entertainment and Victor.

Chaku-uta is now the top item on the "Sounds and Images" page of the KDDI EZweb menu. Users click on the link and go directly to the service, where they can choose from a catalog of about 500 songs. Prices range from 85 yen to 105 yen per song plus a packet charge of 50 yen to 60 yen for each download. The average total cost per song download looks to be around 150 yen. As of mid-December, only two handset models, both au releases, supported the service: Casio's A5302CA and the A5303H from Hitachi.

In several ways, Label Mobile's service is identical to the two major MP3 download services currently available in Japan for certain PHS devices. Both DoCoMo's M-Stage and DDI Pocket's SoundMarket services also allow users to download MP3 files onto mobile players. Though they have been in business since last year, neither M-Stage nor SoundMarket has lived up to initial expectations, and the sluggish market response has led some analysts to wonder about the viability of chaku-uta.

But Label Mobile's president Masakatsu Ueda has been quoted in the Japanese press recently as saying that the failure of M-Stage and SoundMarket to catch on has been due largely to the fact that both services only support a few special PHS devices, which do not allow voice communication. In contrast, the chaku-uta service is meant for ordinary mobile phone users (albeit mobile phone users who have one of the two newest models) and will have a much wider audience.

Furthermore, whereas the PHS services have the image of being an expensive and cumbersome method of obtaining particular tracks from popular CDs, chaku-uta is being marketed more toward ringtone service users, who are looking for quick and cheap downloads.

Compared to the ringtone business, MP3 song clip download services offer many advantages to Japanese record labels. For starters, they provide a chance for the labels to make some revenue. While ringtones have been far and away the biggest moneymaker for mobile content providers, the record companies claim to have been left out in the cold. Jasrac, the Japanese organization in charge of all issues related to music licensing, takes a 5 yen cut on each download, but this money (or at least a fraction of it) goes to the composer and lyricist of the song, not the artist or record label. Second, because copyright licenses for the CD source of a song are much harder to obtain than those for ringtones, there are very few potential competitors who are able to start their own rival chaku-uta services. Finally, the mobile song clip download service gives the record company a new forum for promoting their artists and CDs to a potential audience of millions.

Still, the big question now is whether the public will embrace chaku-uta song clips with anything remotely resembling the enthusiasm shown toward chaku-mero ringtones. While the record companies are promoting the new service as the next step in the evolution of ringtones, chaku-uta in its present form still leaves much to be desired. Much of the appeal of polyphonic ringtones (especially 16-voice) stemmed from their novelty, imagination and low cost. At only 20 yen a shot, it's easy to get hooked on looking up your favorite songs just to see how they sound on your phone. Paying 150 yen for a 25-second MP3 clip, on the other hand, seems a bit excessive, especially as an increasing number of Japanese teenagers are starting to discover file-sharing services on the wired Internet.

For the time being, though, the chaku-uta service provides Label Mobile with a way into the mobile music distribution business and a chance to start building a user base and song catalog. And they can do it without having to start at the bottom of the heap, as a new ringtone provider would. It also gives the phone manufacturers a new selling point -- Casio, in particular, has been aggressive in marketing its new model as one that is "enabled for chaku-uta." While these song clips are probably not going to be replacing ringtones in the near future, they will nonetheless serve as an initial stage on the path to full MP3 download services for mobile phones. @

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