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Public Enemy taps digital distributor

Although almost 20 years have passed since the release of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back -- still one of my top desert island discs -- PE remains a technologically forward-looking group. The latest proof comes with a story in today's New York Times:

Jeff Price, the founder and chief executive of TuneCore, a digital music distributor, has a simple pitch for musicians: “For $30, the cost of a pizza and a six-pack, you can get your album on iTunes, the third-largest music store in the country.”

As a sign of how much digital distribution is changing the music business, this pitch has been heard by unknown bar bands but also some established artists. Today, the company is expected to announce that Public Enemy, one of the seminal hip-hop groups, will use its service for its new album, “How Do You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul.”

TuneCore is a digital distributor that gets music into online stores, just as traditional distributors stock shelves at regular retailers. But Mr. Price (who also co-owns an independent label) does not take a percentage of sales, as most distributors do, nor does he provide the same marketing and promotional services as those companies.

Rather, he charges a flat fee: 99 cents a song as an uploading and processing fee, 99 cents for each store where the act wants to place the album, and $19.98 an album each year for storage.

Mr. Price sees himself as being in the service business, like a futuristic Federal Express that delivers data instead of packages.

“I wanted to get out of the exploitation business and into the service business,” he said. Several other companies, including CD Baby, offer similar services.

Begun in early 2006, TuneCore has distributed plenty of songs: 30,000 customers have started accounts, and Mr. Price said TuneCore had put at least half a million songs online. Most of the company’s customers are obscure bands, but TuneCore has also distributed music from Ziggy Marley and the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin.

Chuck D, the frontman for Public Enemy, sees value in TuneCore’s deal.

“I knew I had a fan base and I wanted to go directly to them,” he said. “What good is a label? All they do is give you money. And in the area of digital distribution, they can’t do anything better or faster than anyone else.”

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