Dutch music retail chain Free Record Shop (FRS) beat Apple Computer Inc. to the local market with the Tuesday launch of a new download service in Europe's latest battleground for digital song services

Dutch music retail chain Free Record Shop (FRS) beat Apple Computer Inc. to the local market with the Tuesday launch of a new download service in Europe's latest battleground for digital song services.

The store at www.freerecordshop.nl and www.freerecordshop.be offers more than 250,000 tracks for €0.89 ($1.09) to €1.19 ($1.46) per song to music fans in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg to start, and in Norway and Finland to follow.

An Apple spokesman in the Netherlands said the computer maker aimed for an autumn launch of a "European Union" service but declined to specify the precise territories or launch date.

Europe's nascent music download market has lagged behind that of the United States. But with the launch in the past three months of Napster, Apple's iTunes and Sony's Connect, the market has showed promising signs of growth.

FRS plans to sign on more labels to double the number of tracks available to 500,000 by the end of the year, but this would still lag iTunes Europe's 700,000-track library.

The Dutch retailer says a focus on chart hits, local acts and an option to order regular CDs and DVDs will distinguish it from competitors such as Tiscali and Chello, which also operate Dutch download stores in cooperation with Britain-based OD2.

OD2, which announced in June its sale to Loudeye Corp, runs a host of download services for retail chains such as HMV in Britain. "It's unique in Europe for a retailer to have its own platform," says an FRS spokesman.

European music fans have been able to buy music downloads from a variety of services for the past three years, but demand until recently has been weak.

Despite the rising popularity of the download services, they have failed to make a dent in the Internet's black market for free songs, films and video games, according to a variety of industry reports.

Each day, the equivalent of roughly 3 billion songs or 5 million movies zips between computers, twice as much as the year before, according to the study by Cambridge, England-based technology firm CacheLogic.

-- Reuters