Richard Branson's Virgin Megastores brand pipped its U.K. rival HMV to the post today (Sept. 2) when it pressed the button on its own bespoke digital music service.

Richard Branson's Virgin Megastores brand pipped its U.K. rival HMV to the post today (Sept. 2) when it pressed the button on its own bespoke digital music service.

The Virgin Digital U.K. service was unveiled at a presentation this morning in the retailer's flagship Oxford Circus Virgin Megastore just three days before HMV's own offering, HMV Digital, goes live.

Both services are powered by digital music service provider MusicNet. Virgin Digital U.K. boasts a digitalized catalog of more than 1.2 million titles. Like HMV -- which disclosed details of its own digital music player yesterday -- the Virgin operation will charge £0.79 ($1.44) cost for individual downloads. That sum is rapidly emerging as the United Kingdom's industry standard. Some unidentified full-album downloads would be discounted to about £5.99 ($10.94), Virgin executives said.

The Virgin store offers a two-tier subscription formula. The cheapest, at £9.99 ($18.26), allows "all-you-can-eat" monthly song rental which can only be played back on up to three PCs. The premium subscription service, at £14.99 ($27.40), allows users to additionally transfer the tracks to WMA-compatible audio devices.

Moreover, physical CDs can be ripped into the player's jukebox function, and digitalized titles can be burned to CD-R. An ad-free online radio service is also available.

Speaking at the media gathering, Virgin Digital U.S. president Zack Zalon said the service's software was "written from scratch" only after polls were conducted on Virgin Megastore customers. "We wanted to make the service easy, sophisticated, simple and powerful all at the same time. I think we've nailed that," Zalon commented. The end result, he claimed, was "the world's most powerful jukebox."

As with HMV, Virgin will look to leverage its well-known retail brand into the digital space. In-store promotions and live performances will take place from today to raise the profile of the new service.

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