Many people considering the purchase of an iPod mistakenly believe that the iTunes Store is the only place where iPod users can purchase music. In reality, however, nothing could be further from the truth: Not only have users always been able to import standard audio CDs into iTunes and transfer them to the iPod, but in the past year or so a whole new range of iPod-compatible music stores have begun to pop up on the Internet. Some of these services have been around for some time for other digital music platforms, while others are relatively new entries in the world of online music sales.
Traditionally, the problem with purchasing music online has been the requirement by the recording industry for vendors to impose some form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions on downloadable content. This was intended to prevent users from easily sharing music via online services, but in reality was little more than a headache for the majority of users. The problem is that not all DRM technologies are compatible with each other, which means that you were restricted to purchasing content from online stores with a DRM scheme that supported your particular choice of media player. Since Apple did not license their FairPlay DRM to any other online vendors nor license any other DRM technologies for the iPod, the iTunes Store was pretty much the only game in town for iPod owners who wanted the convenience of purchasing music online.
However, a funny thing happened with the success of the iPod: Since the only major iPod-compatible online store was Apple’s own iTunes Store, it became popular as more and more people bought iPods, rising to become the number one online music retailer.
It wasn’t that other stores didn’t want to sell music in an iPod-compatible format, it was that they couldn’t: the music labels were tying their hands by not allowing them to sell music without DRM, and Apple wasn’t licensing its own DRM to any other online services. Of course, this left the record labels in a relatively uncomfortable position; they could either allow the iTunes Store to continue to dominate the online music retail business, or they could decide to loosen their stranglehold on digital copy protection in order to allow other retailers to sell music to the large and lucrative iPod customer base.
The end result was that the recording industry began allowing major online retailers such as Amazon and Walmart to begin selling music in the open, DRM-free MP3 format. Since just about every digital media player on the planet supports the MP3 format, this allows these online services to reach a much wider customer base, and provides a benefit for consumers in that your music is no longer tied to a single type of media device. In short, although one is of course expected to obey applicable licensing and copyright laws, the fact is that MP3 files have no technology-based restrictions on how you can use them—they will play in just about any digital audio application on your computer or mobile device and can be freely transferred and burned to CD without limitation.
In this article, we look at a few of the more popular sources for iPod users to purchase content online.
A Word about Audio Formats
Issues with Digital Rights Management (DRM) aside, there are three common audio formats in use by most online music services and media players.
- MP3—Short for MPEG-1, Audio Layer 3, this is the most common format by far and supported by pretty much every digital audio player sold today. The MP3 format does not provide for any form of DRM, so chances are that if you have an MP3 file, it is not restricted in any way.
- AAC—Short for Advanced Audio Coding, this is the preferred format used by Apple for its software and devices. Contrary to popular belief, however, this is not an Apple proprietary format, but is actually part of the MPEG-4 specification, and was originally designed to be the successor to the MP3 format. Many other modern digital audio players and even cell phones do support the AAC format, but it is not nearly as ubiquitous as the MP3 format. The AAC format can be DRM-protected, but this is only used by Apple with their FairPlay DRM on the iTunes Store. Users cannot create their own AAC DRM files, nor do any other online stores sell music in the AAC format.
- WMA—Windows Media Audio is a format developed by Microsoft and used by Windows Media Player as well as most other digital audio players on the market. A DRM-protected version of the WMA format is still used by many other online music stores and digital media players. Apple’s software and devices do not directly support the WMA format in any manner, unprotected or not, although iTunes on Windows will offer to automatically convert unprotected WMA files into either MP3 or AAC format when you first import them into your library.
In addition to the audio format itself, a bit-rate is also frequently specified to indicate the relative quality of the music. This is expressed in kilobits per second, or “kbps” for short, and represents the amount of data stored for each second of music. Generally, a higher number represents better audio quality, although there is a point of diminishing returns for the majority of users. 128kbps is considered the minimum acceptable quality by most users, while bit-rates of 192kbps or 256kbps are considered by most to be indistinguishable from the source material even when played back on high-end equipment.
The iTunes Store
For many years, the iTunes Store was the only major legitimate online music retailer available to iPod users. Today, the majority of music purchased from the iTunes Store is still only available in a FairPlay DRM-protected AAC format that is only compatible with software and hardware made by Apple, specifically iTunes itself and the iPod, iPhone and Apple TV.
In the spring of 2007, Apple began selling tracks from certain labels in a new “iTunes Plus” format, which was a standard unprotected AAC format that could be used on any device supporting that format. In addition, while standard iTunes content is sold at a 128kbps bit-rate, iTunes Plus content is sold at a 256kbps bit-rate. Originally, iTunes Plus content sold at a slight premium over standard iTunes content, however today there is no price difference between the two types of content, and standard iTunes tracks are only sold where iTunes Plus versions are not available.
iTunes Plus tracks can be identified either by a small “Plus” symbol next to the track price, or by the words “iTunes Plus” found under the album name.
Tracks on the iTunes Store sell for $0.99 USD per track—a fixed-pricing model that Apple has been adamant about maintain even in the fact of industry pressure for variable pricing. Albums have a slightly different pricing model, however, since albums vary in number of tracks and whether or not bonus material such as videos are also included. The “normal” album price is $9.99 USD, although albums with extra content or the digital equivalent of multi-disc sets may sell for more than this. Further, Apple recently began selling albums at discount “sale” prices, and its also not uncommon to find shorter albums available for lower prices—generally if an album has less than 10 tracks on it, it sells for about the same price as buying the tracks individually.
At this point, the distinction between the iTunes and iTunes Plus content available seems to be in the hands of the record labels themselves, who make the determination on which tracks must be DRM-protected or not.
Note that the iTunes Store does sell more than just music, however. Depending on your country, you will also find music videos, audiobooks, TV shows, movies, and iPhone and iPod games and applications. The iTunes Store also serves as a gateway to subscribe to podcasts, but this is simply in the form of a podcast “directory” to simplify the process for users. Podcasts themselves are downloaded by iTunes directly from the podcaster’s own site.
The iTunes Store has the advantage of being the most convenient source of music for iTunes users since it is available from directly within the iTunes application on your computer and directly from the iPhone, iPod touch and Apple TV. Further, the iTunes Store has the largest catalogue currently available internationally. Although the content availability differs between countries, the fact is that the iTunes Store now operates in over 60 different countries, making it still the only online music option for many users around the world.
Last year, Amazon became the first major retailer to begin selling music online in the unprotected standard MP3 format. Ironically, Amazon sells music only in the MP3 format, and their catalog of unprotected content is significantly more extensive than that available from iTunes itself, since ALL content is in the unprotected MP3 format.
Amazon MP3 uses a more variable pricing model, with most tracks selling between $0.79 and $0.99 USD, and in fact it’s not at all uncommon to find tracks in the same album with different prices. Normal-length albums range from $3.99 to $12.99, with compilations and multi-disc albums selling at higher prices. Track and album pricing on Amazon MP3 appears to be determined largely on factors such as release date and popularity, and is generally in-line with the prices you would the equivalent CDs selling for in most retail stores.
Like iTunes, Amazon MP3 has some tracks that are available only as part of a purchase of an entire album, however users will often find that these “album-only” tracks actually differ between the iTunes Store and the Amazon MP3 store, so if you’re looking to make a single-track purchase of a track listed as “album-only” it’s always best to shop around.
Note that Amazon MP3 does not at this time provide any content other than music. Amazon MP3 provides files in the MP3 format at 256kbps and all downloaded files include the normal artist, album, and track name tags already filled in, as well as album artwork. Music
Although individually-purchased MP3 tracks can be downloaded directly, album and other multi-track downloads from the Amazon MP3 Store require the use of the Amazon MP3 Downloader application, which is available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. The Amazon MP3 Downloader queues up your content and downloads it and can also automatically import newly-downloaded tracks into iTunes for you.
Note that at this time, Amazon MP3 is only available to users in the United States, and Amazon enforces this in much the same way that the iTunes Store does for its country-specific stores: Users may log on and use the Amazon MP3 store from any physical location, but a U.S. based credit card and billing address is required to make purchases.
Although Walmart has been selling music online in a WMA-based DRM format for some time now, they have recently switched their entire catalog over to the standard unprotected MP3 format.
Walmart uses a relatively fixed-price model similar to iTunes, with most individual tracks selling for $0.94 USD and most average-length albums selling for $9.22 USD. Discounts are occasionally available on selected tracks or albums, and prices differ proportionally for albums that are either longer or shorter than average length.
MP3 files from Walmart are encoded in either a 192kbps or 256kbps bit-rate, but unfortunately Walmart does not provide any indication on their store pages as to which bit-rate a given track is available in.
For Windows users, Walmart will prompt you to install a download manager the first time you purchase music from their online store. Mac OS X and Linux users are simply provided with a page of purchased content with appropriate download links. Once downloaded, Walmart MP3 files can be imported into iTunes simply by dragging and dropping them onto the iTunes window, or by using the File, Add to Library command from within iTunes itself.
Note that like Amazon MP3, Walmart’s MP3 store is only available to users in the United States. However, unlike Amazon, you must be physically located in the United States, and Walmart.com uses IP address verification to enforce this, rather than simply looking at the billing address. They specifically note that even U.S. citizens residing at military addresses or other territories or protectorates outside of the 50 United States will not be able to use their services.
Another recent arrival on the MP3 scene for U.S. users is Napster. Ironically, Napster began as the first major peer-to-peer music sharing site, and then later re-branded itself as a more reputable organization selling music legitimately in the protected WMA format. Most recent users will know Napster as one of the first subscription-based online music services, which provided unlimited “rental” style downloads for a fixed monthly fee.
The Napster-to-Go subscription business model remains available in much the same manner as before—that is, using WMA-protected files incompatible with iTunes or the iPod, and designed to “expire” when you stop paying your monthly membership fee. However, Napster has recently begun selling much of their catalogue in the unprotected MP3 format.
MP3 tracks from Napster are priced at $0.99 per track, with albums being priced simply as an aggregate of the track price. MP3 files vary in quality between 128kbps and 256kbps, with all newer content being encoded at 256kbps. The quality is indicated during the purchase/checkout process.
After purchasing tracks, they are downloaded directly via your browser. Windows users with the Napster dekstop application installed can use this as a download manager, but this is not required.
Note that a Napster monthly membership is not required to purchase MP3 tracks from Napster, even though they will encourage you to sign up for one during your initial registration process. If you’re only interested in purchasing MP3 files from Napster, about the only advantage to having a subscription is the ability to listen to full previews of tracks before you buy them. Without a subscription, you are limited to a 30-second preview.
Like Amazon and Walmart, Napster’s MP3 service is available only in the United States at this time. Credit card billing addresses are used to verify U.S. residency.
Rhapsody MP3 Store
Rhapsody was an online service by Real Networks that has also existed for some time as a music store selling WMA-protected music for other digital audio devices. Rhapsody briefly toyed with reverse-engineering Apple’s FairPlay DRM a few years ago in an attempt to sell music to iPod users, but that idea was quickly shut down by Apple due to licensing issues.
Rhapsody uses the standard $0.99 USD pricing model for individual tracks, with most average-length albums priced at $8.99 USD. All MP3 files from Rhapsody are encoded at a 256kbps bit-rate similar to the other online stores.
Rhapsody offers an additional feature which is somewhat unique from the other services: Users can listen to full-length previews of up to 25 songs per month with no membership or subscription required. Like Napster, a Rhapsody membership will allow unlimited full-length previews.
Purchased tracks can be downloaded directly from the Rhapsody site as a ZIP file, or Windows users may download and install a Rhapsody download manager.
As with most of the other online services that we have looked at, Rhapsody is only available to users in the United States. Credit card billing information is used to enforce this.
eMusic has been around for longer than even the iTunes Store, and is somewhat unique in its approach from most other online music retails. Unlike the others eMusic has always provided their content in the open and unprotected MP3 format. Unfortunately, this limits the selection of music available on eMusic’s catalog—you won’t find major record-label music here, but there is a great selection of over 4 million tracks from smaller labels and independent artists, which is where eMusic’s primary focus lies.
eMusic works on a subscription-based model, but unlike services such as Napster-to-Go, you actually get to keep the tracks even if you choose to cancel your eMusic subscription. Instead of purchasing individual tracks, you sign up for a monthly subscription plan which includes a certain number of tracks per month.
Once you have downloaded your track quota for a given month, you either need to wait until the next month, or purchase a “Booster Pack” to add additional downloads.
The bit-rate of the MP3 files on eMusic can vary depending on the artist and/or source. Most files are 192kbps VBR, although they appear to be encoding some of their newer content at 256kbps.
Due to its focus on independent artists, eMusic has no country-specific restrictions on it, so you can use it from just about anywhere, and unlike the iTunes Store, there are no country-specific catalogues—you’re accessing the same music catalog regardless of where you are.
With the music labels finally coming to the realization that placing technical DRM restrictions on content has done far more to alienate and confuse legitimate customers than it has to reduce music piracy, iTunes and iPod owners now have more options than ever for shopping around and finding legitimate sources of digital music online.
While iTunes may seem like the most obvious and convenient option, there is now some real, genuine competition out there in the online music business. Consumers who are concerned about maintaining the widest possible range of compatibility and “future-proofing” their music should definitely look to online stores that are selling music in the DRM-free MP3 format, as these tracks can be played anywhere, and in many cases are cheaper in price and higher in quality than those offered by the iTunes Store.
As the online music retail industry continues to evolve, we expect to see even more online music retailers popping up and offering music from major labels in open formats. Ironically, with all of these other options it seems that the iTunes Store is now behind the times as the major holdout in dropping DRM. To be fair, however, the music labels themselves likely share much of the blame for this situation at the present time, and we do hope to see Apple’s entire iTunes Store catalogu. available in the iTunes Plus format soon, particularly since it remains the only viable source for purchasing music online for iTunes users living outside of the United States.