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Led Zeppelin Agrees to Make Its Songs Available Digitally


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Copyright New York Times Company Oct 15, 2007

by Jeff Leeds

It's been a long time, but Led Zeppelin, one of the last superstar acts to refrain from selling its music online, is finally offering its catalog to digital-music fans.

The shift by Led Zeppelin, whose reunion concert in London next month has already incited a frenzy for tickets, highlights the clout of digital sales in the music market as mass merchants reduce the shelf space devoted to compact discs. Under a series of new agreements expected to be announced today, the band will make its songs available first as ringtones and similar mobile features starting this week in an exclusive deal with Verizon Wireless. Digital downloads of songs from the band's eight studio albums and other recordings are expected to be available through Verizon and digital-music services, including iTunes, on Nov. 13.

Led Zeppelin's decision to sell its music online coincides with the end of a fierce bidding war over the rights to administer the band's catalog of songs, which includes the classics ''Stairway to Heaven'' and ''Rock and Roll.'' Under a separate deal the band is to receive an estimated $60 million in exchange for extending its ties to its longtime music publisher, Warner/Chappell Music, for at least 10 years, said three people briefed on the agreement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to discuss it.

The deals come as the group, which disbanded in 1980 after the death of its drummer, John Bonham, is back in the limelight. The three surviving members -- Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones -- are performing in concert together next month for the first time in 19 years as part of a memorial tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records, which released the band's albums. (Mr. Bonham's son, Jason, will play drums.)

The Nov. 26 concert, which is to benefit Mr. Ertegun's educational charity, also coincides with the release of an expansive two-disc hits collection. Mr. Plant is also releasing a new album he recorded with the blue-grass artist Alison Krauss.

Declining to sell music online hasn't made Led Zeppelin's songs unavailable; they are regularly traded on unauthorized file-sharing services. But executives charged with marketing the band insist it still matters to the rapidly evolving legal digital market when a superstar act -- particularly one that might mark a rite of passage for young fans -- gets on board.

''The great thing about this band, unlike almost any other band that you could think of, is that every single day there is a new 13-year-old kid who's just starting to get into music'' and will discover the group, said David Dorn, senior vice president of e-commerce at Rhino Entertainment, which is marketing the band's catalog. ''That's a customer that's coming along for the future.''

Of the few remaining digital holdouts, only the Beatles and Garth Brooks have outsold Led Zeppelin in the United States. The digital-sales potential was one reason the rights to oversee Led Zeppelin's song copyrights sparked months of wrangling among competing music publishers. (Publishers represent songwriters, who may or may not also be recording artists.) Warner/Chappell spiced its offer with an enticement no competitor could match: Its corporate parent, Warner Music Group, distributes the band's albums and agreed to raise the royalty rate on certain recordings, according to people briefed on the negotiations.

Preventing the exit of a marquee act was a victory for the publishing company, particularly at a time when competition for copyrights -- which generate income through licenses to commercials, radio airplay and the like -- is coming from a variety of new players. Songwriters like Elton John and Quincy Jones have defected from Warner/Chappell in recent years, though its revenue overall has edged up so far this year.

Even without digital sales Led Zeppelin's music had made money steadily. The band remains one of the most-played acts on rock radio stations and recently had an unusual encounter with the Top 40. Sean Kingston, a Jamaican-American pop singer, was permitted to use a few notes of the Led Zeppelin song ''D'yer Mak'er'' in his song ''Me Love'' in exchange for granting the band an ownership stake in the copyright, people involved said. The band has also licensed its songs in recent years for a Cadillac advertising campaign and an episode of the television show ''One Tree Hill,'' among others.

Still, the band is considered selective. ''It's a very special thing to have one in your movie,'' said Randall Poster, a music supervisor who licensed a Led Zeppelin song for a scene in the film ''School of Rock'' after its star, Jack Black, made a personal plea to the band. ''It's the holy sound of the temple of rock.''

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