Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Buy music online

As one may suspect, working in digital music gives a person a somewhat skewed view about the permeation of online music in the general population. Everyone (aside from audiophiles and vinyl buffs) is getting their music fix though the Web nowadays, right? Wrong. Although digital music is on the rise, it's still well behind CDs in terms of overall sales ($2.8 billion versus $15.9 billion, according to one report).

Another report forecasts that digital music sales won't surpass physical media for another four years. Well, what say we prove some people wrong (always fun) and shave a year or two off that number? To help you sort through the clutter of online music, I've rounded up my Top 5 choices for digital tunes. These selections aren't really in any particular order; rather, each service offers a variety of advantages depending on your personal needs and preferences.

iTunes: Owned by Apple, the iTunes store set the pattern for a la carte music shopping and still reigns king over the customer base. iTunes has sold more than 5 billion songs to date, and it offers excellent integration with the world's best-selling MP3 player, the iPod. It's catalog contains more than 8 million songs as well as a variety of podcasts, TV shows, and movies. The one major bummer is that most of the tracks sold in iTunes can only be played on the iPod or iPhone and not any other MP3 player. You must download the iTunes software in order to access the store, but it works on both Windows and Mac operating systems.

eMusic: This indie representer is quite a ways behind iTunes in catalog numbers and sales, but it controls the second largest market share (10 to 15 percent, according to label feedback). eMusic has sold more than 200 million tracks in the past four years and is currently averaging five to six million song downloads per month from its catalog of over 3.5 million tracks. The company made a name for itself with an all-you-can-download service but now offers limited subscriptions, starting at $11.99 per month for 30 unrestricted MP3s. Thanks to this "track pack" pricing and the fact that the company doesn't currently sell big label songs, eMusic offers an incredible value: it is the cheapest of the bunch by far (27 cents per track with the Premium plan). It also has a large number of music reviews by editors and users alike.

Amazon MP3: Started by online retail giant Amazon.com, this music store was the first to offer DRM-free MP3 tracks from the Big Four (aka major music labels). In fact, Amazon deserves a lot of credit for the current movement to do away with confusing restrictions on music downloads. Plus, the company has a huge audience and broad appeal, which will no doubt give digital music a violent shove into the mainstream mindset. Amazon offers a constantly growing catalog, which currently holds over 5 million tracks. It is a Web-based store with only a light app required for queuing downloads. Anyone with a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine can access the store, which also offers audiobooks, movies, and TV shows as digital downloads.

Napster: Once the reigning peer-to-peer music service, Napster is now a legal music store. It recently transitioned its catalog from DRM-protected WMAs back to the ever-popular unprotected MP3 format that it slung back in its trading days and currently offers the largest selection of legal MP3s on the Web (more than 6 million tracks). Napster offers some excellent editorial content, including music reviews as well as preprogrammed playlists and radio stations. The downloadable client only works on Windows, but anyone with a Web connection can access the store online and purchase tracks.

Rhapsody: Similar to Napster in most respects, Rhapsody offers a catalog of more than 4.5 million DRM-free MP3s. It's chock-full of preprogammed playlists made by editors and other listeners and includes an innovative radio feature called Channels, some of which are offered up for free listening. Rhapsody is the only service that allows full track previews (up to 25 per month) prior to purchasing the songs. It can be accessed directly on the Web or downloaded as a jukebox (for Windows only) and offers a subscription plan as well.

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