MP3.com Will Hide Ads, For a Price

Music download site MP3.com on Wednesday unveiled its plans to offer paid access to a version of its site that lacks ads.

Through the new Ad-Free service, the San Diego, Calif.-based firm is offering to let users browse the site free of takeover ads, banners and buttons. But the service comes at a price — $2.99 a month, or $29.99 annually.

Spokespeople from MP3.com did not return phone calls by press time, but according to a statement from the company, “with Ad-Free MP3.com users can pay a small monthly or annual fee to enjoy their music and browse the entire MP3.com site without annoying audio or visual commercial interruptions.”

In addition to ridding the site of its ads for subscribers’ surfing comfort, MP3.com is also making a plea to users of dialup connections — who will benefit from marginally faster connections without having to download ads.

But the decision (not to mention the labeling of some of its ads as “annoying”) could come back to haunt the firm, which in the past has spent a considerable amount of effort to woo traditional advertisers.

In May, the company signed an agreement with Heineken USA to sponsor a 50-city music tour involving indie bands featured on the site. As part of the deal, MP3.com said it would promote Heineken in offline and online marketing efforts, including banner ads.

In addition to Heineken, the site also is running ads for clients including Urban Decay cosmetics, TAG Heuer and Southern Comfort, which is running a takeover campaign.

Interestingly, some of the most obtrusive ads on the site actually are created in-house to promote the new offering. A pop-up — one of the only ones running on the site — asks users to consider whether they’re “Tired of your slow Internet connection? Can’t get faster Internet service? Get the music without the ads! Try the NEW Ad-Free MP3.com.”

On the other hand, the company pointed to a June survey from Jupiter Media Metrix that found that 26 percent of consumers would pay a subscription fee in return for not receiving ads. Roughly the same amount said they would also accept a free Internet connection or a free MP3 playing device. However, more respondents in that poll — about 38 percent — said they would be likely to pay in return for guaranteed music quality.

To MP3.com, these findings represent a mandate to drop advertising in favor of subscriptions.

“Many of our users have made it clear that they want to escape pop-up windows and other commercial solicitations,” said MP3.com chairman and chief executive officer Michael Robertson in a statement. “Now users can turn off unwanted advertising interruptions and get to the task of finding and listening to great music more quickly.”

Naturally, there are bottom-line considerations as well. As CPM rates have plummeted during the past 12 months, a growing number of publishers are thinking hard about the costs and benefits of charging users a premium instead of using advertising at all.

The MP3.com decision comes following the controversy surrounding Salon’s announcement in March that it would offer a similar premium service. Through that plan, the upscale content site said it would sell ad-free access for $30 a year, or $50 for two.

On top of seeing the site devoid of ads, Ad-Free users will also receive MP3.com’s Premium Listener Service Express, an application that allows for CD burning and song-downloading.

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