Google to take a pop at iTunes domination

Spinal Tap head lavish party to launch tech giant's ambitious move into music downloads

Our hosts were Silicon Valley’s foremost geeks, but their audience was as streetwise as they come. In a warehouse decorated by graffiti and filled with tattoos, expensive haircuts, and freeloading youths in skinny jeans, Google last night unveiled plans to launch its first digital music store.

The world's biggest internet search engine announced its assault on the global music industry at a surreal party in Hollywood, attended by the rap artist Busta Rhymes, and jollified by Coldplay, who addressed guests via video. Their new venture is called Google Music, and its creators hope to eventually rival Apple’s iTunes for domination of increasingly lucrative digital download market.

Customers will be able to buy songs online, for between $1 and $1.29 (62p and 82p) each, and store up to 20,000 of them in a digital “cloud” for free. They can then listen to their music collection via internet browsers, or on any of the 200 million-odd mobile devices that currently use Google’s Android platform.

The service, which went live overnight, will also allow users to temporarily lend items from their collection to friends, via the Google Plus social network. And in a move to bolster grassroots music, it’ll let artists and bands to set up homepages to sell their work directly to fans, keeping 70 percent of the takings.

Invitations to the launch were signed by Nigel Tufnel, the star of the fictitious rock band Spinal Tap, and performances from Maroon 5 and Drake were scheduled. It was held at the Hollywood gallery of Mr Brainwash, an opaque Frenchman at the centre of the street artist Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Although Mr Brainwash’s entire oeuvre is arguably a postmodern joke, Google is deadly serious about the venture. It has already struck multimillion-dollar distribution deals with Sony, Universal and EMI, and 1,000 independent record labels, allowing the store to stock roughly 13 million songs.

Among “major” labels, only Warner Music Group has yet to come on board. The firm controls roughly 20 per cent of the global market but is said to be reluctant to finalise a deal because of disagreements over pricing and anti-piracy measures.

Google has a mixed record with regard to new product launches, and ambitious projects such as Google Wave and Google Buzz were confidently unveiled in recent years only to prove to be expensive flops. But the digital music store taps into a market that’s growing fast. Apple’s iTunes, launched in 2003, now accounts for two-thirds of all download sales, and around 30 per cent of global music sales. Given that stranglehold on the market, consumer advocates will be among those applauding Google’s attempt to compete.