Until now, the music industry’s approach to China has often been ‘if you can’t beat piracy’s appeal of free downloads, join ’em by offering free legal downloads’.

That may be changing, if a report on China Daily is to be believed. It claims that websites including Baidu, QQ Music, Kugoo and Koowo are preparing to start charging for music downloads in 2013.

The report cites an unnamed source from Universal Music in China: “It has been discussed for many years in the industry. The lack of outstanding music in recent years is partly due to free downloads from the Internet, which cause huge losses to the recording industry.”

The report goes on to suggest that individual music downloads may cost 1 yuan (around $0.16), but there may also be options to pay 20 yuan ($3.20) a month for unlimited downloads. “We will provide several levels of fees according to different demands and economic capabilities of users,” a senior manager at QQ Music tells the website, while hinting that less popular songs may still be free to download.

The devil will be in the detail, particularly in how the paid downloads complement or replace the existing free services. Establishing those free, legal services was a long, delicate process for music rightsholders, and it will be important to ensure any move towards paid downloads doesn’t throw away that progress and send millions of people back to piracy.

We also suspect mobile may have more of a role to play in establishing a thriving paid music market in China.

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