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Warner chief is urged to launch counter bid for EMI

Their comments came after Warner posted a strong set of results, which showed it opening up a clear lead in the new market for music downloads.

Strong sales from artists including James Blunt and Gnarls Barkley helped the company beat forecasts, and the figures prompted a further rise in Warner shares. They are now above the level of EMI's $4.2bn (£2.3bn) offer, which Warner rejected earlier this week.

Edgar Bronfman Jr, Warner's chief executive, refused to be drawn on the company's next move in its long dance with EMI, which made its third bid attempt in six years on Monday.

And the previous evening, for an audience in New York, he had played down talk of a deal. "Consolidation for consolidation's sake doesn't make a lot of sense," he said. "Ours is not a business that requires scale economics."

Warner's sales in the first three months of this year were up 4 per cent from the same period in 2005, and download sales more than doubled to $90m. That represented 11 per cent of revenues, and means that Warner is replacing declining CD sales at a much faster rate than EMI and their bigger rivals SonyBMG and Universal.

Warner's Gnarls Barkley became the first artist to top the British singles chart on download sales only, and the company is also selling increasing numbers of digital albums, by adding special features and concert ticket offers.

Wall Street analysts hailed Mr Bronfman for engineering the sales turnaround in an industry that was widely seen as moribund when he led a private equity-backed acquisition of the business from Time Warner in 2004. Mr Bronfman has been rebuilding a reputation nearly wrecked when he handed his family's Seagram whisky-to-music empire to Vivendi Universal in return for shares that later collapsed.

Douglas Mitchelson, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, asked Mr Bronfman: "Given Warner and EMI are a similar size, given the fantastic execution we have seen over the past four quarters, and given your experience in putting Universal and Polygram together, wouldn't it make more sense for Warner to be the acquirer in any deal with EMI?"

EMI remains confident Mr Bronfman's private equity backers would accept a bid at a slightly higher level than that pitched this week.