Apple is tapping into the popularity of social networking sites, as it announces a deal on Wednesday to embed its iTunes internet music download service into the Bebo website.

From Wednesday, Bebo’s 8.8m users in the UK and Ireland will be able to buy music directly from the profile of any musician who has a Bebo profile and whose music is available on iTunes.

It will be the first time Apple has linked iTunes to a social networking site.

Social networking sites such as Bebo and MySpace are heavily focused on music, with many bands creating profiles and using the sites to communicate with fans. MySpace, for example, organises “secret gigs” for its members, to promote new bands.

Bebo has 500,000 musicians registered on its site, including both undiscovered bands, and established acts. About 4,000 bands are estimated to sign up to the site each day.

The deal with Bebo will give Apple a deeper reach into the market segment of 16- to 24-year-olds, who are both keen users of social networking sites, and key consumers of music.

Some 32 per cent of 16- to 24-year-old internet users visit social networking sites at least once a month, making the demographic the leader of the social networking trend, according to the European Interactive Advertising Association.

However, 16- to 24-year-olds are also frequent users of illegal music downloading sites, and Apple is keen to encourage them to pay for music by making the process quicker and more accessible.

It is understood that Apple sees the deal, which will initially cover only the UK and Ireland, as experimental, but could later extend it to the rest of Bebo’s 33m users worldwide.

Bebo will also become a platform for iTunes to promote lesser-known artists. Bebo will offer users a free music download each week, designed to introduce new artists and releases.

The idea builds on iTunes’ Single of the Week promotion, which has helped to establish the careers of the likes of Scott Matthews, Mika, James Blunt, Paolo Nutini and Kate Walsh.

The first free single will be “Youth of Today” by Amy Macdonald, from the Mercury Music Group label.

Apple is the latest company to try to harness the popularity of social networking sites to increase revenues.

Mobile telephone operators Vodafone and Orange have also signed deals with MySpace and Bebo, respectively, hoping to increase the use of the internet through mobile phones by encouraging social network users to access pages via their handsets.

Last month Facebook, another popular networking site, unveiled plans to allow outside companies such as Amazon, the online shopping site, to embed customised features in Facebook pages.

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