To kick off with 2 million tracks.

The underperforming digital subscription business has a new would-be savior: MTV. The music and lifestyle giant on Wednesday (May 17) will unveil its long anticipated digital music service, Urge.

MTV tapped Microsoft to help design and develop the offering. Urge will be embedded in the newest version of Microsoft’s music management software, Windows Media Player 11, which also bows on Wednesday. MusicNet is providing MTV with the licenses to more than 2 million tracks from all major labels and large number of independents.

Consumers can choose between a traditional download experience a la iTunes—tracks at 99 cents each and digital albums with an average price of $9.99—or a two-tier subscription service. But look for MTV to focus its efforts on pushing the subscription solution. The subscription service offers PC-based on-demand music for $9.95 per month ($99 per year), and portable music for $14.95 per month ($149 per year).

Programming is a key element of MTV’s strategy with Urge. The service will feature exclusive downloadable playlists from shows like MTV’s “Total Request Live,” VH1’s “I Love The…” and CMT’s “Crossroads.”

In addition, Urge will feature dedicated blogs, news and features, over 130 radio stations, more the 500 preprogrammed playlists, special genre-based samplers called “Super Playlists,” Billboard charts, automatically updating playlists called “feeds” and the ability to create “auto mixes” based on artist and style preferences.

The subscription space is by no means short on high profile names marketing similar services to consumers. AOL, Yahoo, Virgin, Napster, and Real Networks are all pushing rival services. But consumer adoption has been limited thus far. MTV is hoping to change the fortunes of the subscription business by bringing substantial marketing and promotional muscle to the table in promoting its service.

MTV plans to advertise the service extensively throughout its MTV, VH1 and CMT music channels—which collectively reach 165 million viewers per month—as well as on all MTV-branded Web sites. The network will use its on-air and online programming to market and promote Urge, driving viewers to service following artist appearances and performances, as well as in conjunction with video airplay, lifestyle shows and specials. Additionally Microsoft will promote the service as part of its Windows Media Player outreach.

Word of an MTV digital music service has been circulating since at least 2004. But according to MTV Networks Music Group president Van Toffler, the company wanted to wait for the technology behind today's music subscriptions to improve. Minor bugs have dogged existing subscription services, particularly related to transferring songs to portable devices. Microsoft and MTV think they have those bugs fixed.

As part of the Urge/WMP 11 launch, Microsoft is introducing an updated version of its Janus technology—currently the only digital-rights-management system that supports subscription portability. And by having Microsoft develop the back-end technology powering the Urge service, MTV is hoping to offer a more seamless portable subscription experience.

Integration with the new Windows Media Player also allows for improved searching and browsing through both an existing music collection and the content featured in Urge.

However, Urge will not be compatible with the market-leading iPod. For Urge to be a success, MTV will have to convince subscribers to buy a different device—a challenge that has dogged every music subscription service to date.Urge is compatible with over 100 devices, but it will be pushing a handful of particularly promising players including the iRiver Clix, a new rival to the iPod nano.

Toffler, meanwhile, says that since digital content represents only 5% of music sales, there is still plenty of room to compete with Apple Computer, despite the fact that MTV and Apple are targeting the same audience.