Universal Music International (UMI) today (March 3) hits a digital-distribution milestone by becoming the first major to digitize its entire European music catalog.

Universal Music International (UMI) today (March 3) hits a digital-distribution milestone by becoming the first major to digitize its entire European music catalog.

Online retailers with the required digital licensing rights now have access to UMI's estimated 300,000 tracks by more than 5,000 acts, from recent releases by 50 Cent, Black Eyed Peas, Daniel Bedingfield and Busted to a back catalog of material by artists including veteran French crooner Johnny Hallyday and Italian opera maestro Luciano Pavarotti.

The news represents a significant phase in UMI's Digital Initiatives project, which is designed to ingrain digital sales as a core of UMI's long-term plans. The program includes plans for storing and archiving tracks in flexible formats to suit retailers.

"We believe the digital market is about to explode in Europe and we've had to time these things accordingly," says London-based Barney Wragg, VP of UMI's eLabs division. "As a record company, we needed to be agnostic of the formats and to be future-proof. So all new releases go through this system automatically."

The digitized European catalog can be used by sister record companies in the rest of the world.

"We can use it to deliver content globally, including local repertoire that was not economical to release in the physical format in other territories," Wragg explains.

Among UMI's digital retail partners are the UMI-owned e-Compil in France, Popfile in Germany, Australian Internet service provider Telstra and the 30-plus services powered by U.K. digital service provider OD2. Wragg says UMI built an adaptable framework that could cope with any future changes in the digital market.

UMI's digitizing process is now installed in parallel with traditional CD manufacturing. From the same artist-delivered master tape used for physical formats, UMI creates a digital file that is available in any format such as the open MP3 or the more protected WMA or AAC. Based on online retailers' respective requirements for audio quality, the file transmission can range from 32 to 156 kilobytes per second.

Mark Mulligan, research director and senior analyst at Jupiter Research, is impressed with UMI's achievement. "Audio masters are the physical manifestation of the core assets of the labels. But digitizing catalog is a massive job. It is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, particularly when you consider that much of the digitized obscure back catalog will by definition be in very low demand in digital music services," he says.