A lot of people will be getting iPods again this Christmas, which means a lot of people are going to get played for suckers again this year. At least they will if they end up using Apple’s iTunes store to buy their music (which is pretty inevitable, as the iPod leaves them little choice). Paying a buck a song for a file from a source which pays nothing for media or distribution is the definition of suckerhood, since you’re essentially paying CD prices but aren’t getting CD quality.
So let’s look at the three criteria for online music purchase for people who aren’t suckers:
- available in your choice of format
The first criteria, easiness, rules out p2p. If you’ve tried this, you know what I’m talking about. You search, maybe you find something that looks promising, but you won’t know for sure until you’ve downloaded it and listened to it. Or perhaps you’re looking for an entire album by an artist, but all you can find are bits and pieces. Download speed from the source may be slow. And it can be interrupted. It’s a messy pain in the arse whose only virtue with regard to our criteria is price. And it’s potentially illegal, though not necessarily: in Canada you can make personal copies of music you haven’t paid for. That’s why Canadians pay a levy on blank media. However, even if you live in a jurisdiction with laws like Canada’s, you can still be in violation of the law if you haven’t turned off sharing – you can leech, but you can’t allow others to copy your files.
I had thought of including no “Digital Restrictions Management” (or as it’s often known, Digital Rights Management) as a requirement, but really, that’s covered under the criterion of choice. Given a choice, few people will choose a DRMed format.
And there is a choice. In fact, Magnatune could serve as a model for online music retailers in general. It’s as easy as any other online store, and you can preview entire albums at a quality that accurately represents the music.
Price per album is 5 to 18 dollars, you choose. Why pay $18 for something you can get for $5? Because 50% of what you pay goes to the artist; if you want to be really supportive, you pay more.
You can choose from a variety of formats, including wav, mp3, and ogg, none of which are encumbered with DRM. For a premium, they’ll even sell and mail you a CD, and allow you to download the music to listen to while you’re waiting for the postman to arrive. This is handy for those who want the best quality sound, but are on slow connections. Personally, I buy wav format, burn my own CD for backup purposes, and convert the wav’s myself to my preferred format for daily listening, ogg.
Really, the only downside to Magnatune is that they have a limited selection, relative to all the music in the world. You probably haven’t heard of most of the people they carry. But that could be regarded as an opportunity to discover something new, especially since you can preview entire albums at decent quality for free. And if you do decide to buy, you are entitled to give three copies to friends, totally legit, even encouraged.
If you’re looking for a big name artist, however, you’ll have better luck at allofmp3.com. Now, this site is out of Russia, and the Russian government, under pressure from the U.S. government, which in turn has been under pressure from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), recently announced that they intend to shut the company down. But things do tend to move at a Chekhovian pace over there, and, as of this writing, allofmp3.com is still online.
The operators, for their part, claim to be totally legal under Russian law, paying royalties to some Russian royalty agency. Is the service legal for non-Russians to use? I don’t know. It should be for Canadians, given the previously mentioned right to copy. As for the The RIAA, they are (IMHO) avaricious litigious bastards known for suing children, the elderly, and the dead. One of my personal criteria for music purchases at this point is that it not put any money in the pockets of RIAA member labels. (The riaaradar.com site can be useful in this regard.)
Returning to our number one criterion, ease-of-use: allofmp3.com uses the ubiquitous shopping cart model, so you should find checkout simple. Where they could learn a thing or two from Magnatune is in the area of delivery. Magnatune allows you to download a zip file of your songs, but allofmp3.com has you download each song individually, a tad cumbersome. On the upside, you don’t have to buy entire albums — you can choose only those songs you want.
They could also adopt Magnatune’s policy of decent quality previews. If you’re not logged into an allofmp3.com account, you can listen to low-quality snippets that are inadequate to really base a judgment on. Log in to your account and you can preview entire albums, but again at such low quality that it doesn’t represent the music very well.
Pricing is based on download size. You’ll pay more for higher quality files. When purchasing from allofmp3.com, I choose high quality oggs. If you choose any of the lossless CD quality formats, you’ll wind up paying close to what a CD would cost.
Payment is also a bit different, in that you first fund your account, then the cost of downloads is debited from your balance. Albums vary in price according to size, but you should be able to get four or maybe five in a high quality compressed format for $15.
As with Magnatune, all formats are non-DRMed. You might wonder whether you should hand your credit card number over to a Russian company whose legality has been called into question by other interested parties. That’s a decision you’ll have to make for yourself. I’ve been using them for about a year now with no problem.
So, there are some options out there. Let’s say screw the RIAA and anyone else who would play us for suckers, and hope that Big Music gets the message. Both Magnatune and allofmp3.com can serve as models for profitable businesses that provide value to customers. But if we collectively persist in dropping our pants and bending over for the record companies and online gougers, don’t expect things to change. Change will be driven by consumers refusing to take it up the ass, and supporting only those businesses that show us a little respect.