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Universal, EMI Line Up Behind SACD Format

Momentum behind the Super Audio CD format accelerated with the announcement that the world’s largest music company — Universal Music Group — plans to sell its first Super Audio CD discs in the next few months in the United States and other countries.

In another boost to the format’s fortunes, EMI Recorded Music, the world’s third-largest music company, announced plans to expand its selection of SACD titles this year. Significantly, the company didn’t say whether it would expand its DVD-Audio disc selection beyond a single title marketed by the company’s Virgin Records unit.

Virgin, which also markets a single SACD title, plans U.S. and worldwide availability of nine more SACDs by the end of the year. EMI Recorded Music’s EMI unit will launch its first SACD titles “in coming months” but hasn’t yet determined if they will be available in the United States.

With the announcements, the world’s three largest music companies, including second-ranked Sony Music Entertainment, will each be marketing multiple SACD titles.

Of the five largest music companies, only fourth-ranked Warner Music has released multiple titles in the rival DVD-Audio format, but fifth-ranked BMG Entertainment seems ready to follow. “We’re still very much a supporter of DVD-Audio,” said Bill Allen, BMG’s new technology director. “I think we’ll have some news soon.”

The format, “as a mass-market medium, has no comparison,” he said, pointing to the options for full-motion video and backward compatibility with the installed base of DVD-Video players.

Independent music companies offer titles in both formats.

Potentially, the Universal and EMI announcements could prompt consumer electronics suppliers to build combination SACD/DVD-Audio/ Video players. In the United States, only Pioneer has shown such a model, which plays two-channel SACDs but not multichannel SACDs.

Universal has not ruled out future DVD-Audio releases, but it isn’t saying whether a DVD-Audio decision is imminent. Said a Universal spokesman, “We believe that SACD is well-positioned to become a standard for the industry. However, UMG has not ruled out the release of content in any other physical format if it makes commercial sense to do so in the future.” Universal also supports tiny DataPlay write-once floppy discs for prerecorded music.

Even though Universal has participated in DVD Entertainment Group activities intended to promote DVD-Video and -Audio, one DVD Forum member said Universal’s SACD decision isn’t a complete surprise. “Universal has been dragging its feet to come to an agreement to license DVD-Audio,” the member claimed.

That marketer and a music company executive believe the Universal and EMI announcements might be attributable in part to incentives from Sony, which co-developed SACD with Philips. “It’s a difficult environment [for music companies] right now,” said the music company executive. Referring to first-half declines in unit and dollar sales of music software in the United States, he pointed out that “in these difficult times, if you get external funding for titles, that could explain the announcements.”

Universal chairman Jorgen Larsen cited the increasing penetration of SACD players for the company’s decision to launch SACD titles.

Other executives speculated that copyright protection might have played a role in the SACD announcements. The SACD format, for example, doesn’t include specs for an SACD drive in PCs, as the DVD-Audio format does. Nor are Sony and Philips developing a recordable-SACD format, while recordable DVD-Video and DVD-Audio discs were always envisioned, marketers said.

Here’s what the music companies announced:

Universal: The company said it hopes to ship its first SACD titles before the end of the year, but it didn’t specify how many, a price or specific titles. It did say the titles will include catalog and “best-selling new releases,” according to a prepared statement. Many Universal discs will feature multichannel music, and multichannel titles could be among the first batch, a spokeswoman said.

As for hybrid CD/SACD discs, she added, “We’re still evaluating hybrid discs. We’ll make a decision in the near future.”

EMI Recorded Music: The company’s EMI unit offered few details at press time but did say its first titles would number around 17 and would be available in coming months. A spokeswoman said U.S. availability would depend on whether EMI has worldwide rights to the title and on other marketing considerations. EMI is in discussions with a number of artists for the first batch of releases.

Virgin, another unit of EMI Recorded Music, announced plans for nine more SACD titles to join its lone title. Virgin also markets a DVD-Audio title, but hasn’t said whether more DVD-Audio discs are in the works. A Virgin spokesman said the titles will be available in October and November as part of a worldwide launch that includes the United States.

Neither EMI units had details on disc pricing or whether the announced batches would include multichannel or hybrid discs. A spokesperson for parent company EMI Group added, “Our policy is to support all new technology formats until we find the degree of consumer acceptance.”