MySpace plans to start selling music downloads before the end of the year, marking the first broad attempt to turn the fast-growing online community site into a commercial powerhouse.

Because of Apple’s lock on core pieces of technology in the digital music business, however, the service is highly unlikely to carry music from established acts, according to industry executives and analysts.

Instead, it will be used by amateur bands looking to generate sales or by acts seeking wider publicity, they said.

In spite of this limited initial role, Chris DeWolfe, co-founder of the social networking group, said it was the first step in a plan to turn MySpace into a force in the mainstream online music business. “Eventually, we should catch more than just the ‘long tail’” of small-scale acts, he said. “This is not just a niche business.”

Many aspiring bands make their music available free of charge on MySpace as a way to promote themselves. Giving them an easy way to sell their music was the next logical step, said Mr DeWolfe.

Anyone with a presence on MySpace will be able to upload their music to the site and offer it for sale on their own page. Though they will be able to set their own price, MySpace will establish a minimum figure to cover the costs of running the service, with any money above that divided between the site and the artists.

The lack of any anti-piracy software built into the system is likely to make it unappealing to mainstream acts, according to analysts. The songs will be carried in MP3 format, meaning once downloaded they can be freely copied and shared with other people.

MySpace selected the format because it wanted to let buyers load songs on to their iPods, said Mr DeWolfe. Because Apple refuses to license its Fairplay digital rights management software, which limits how music is copied and shared, the unprotected MP3 format was the only option, he added.

MySpace is unlikely to be able to create a sizeable business just from selling music by unknown bands, even if it attracts very large numbers of users, said David Card, an analyst at Jupiter Research.

“I’ve yet to see an entertainment company that can be successful by creating a business only out of the ‘long tail’, with no hits,” he said. For amateur bands, “a couple of artists may break through with this, but most of them won’t make much money,” he said.

The plan is the product of an alliance between the social networking site and Sean Fanning, founder of the Napster peer-to-peer music swapping service that unleashed a tidal wave of piracy against the music industry. Mr Fanning’s latest company, Snocap, is supplying the technology to support the music service.

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