Seven years after the rise and fall of Napster, and the subsequent emergence of Apple's iTunes, most music fans have never purchased digital music at an online store.
While hard numbers are elusive, one study claims that 3 percent of online households made an iTunes purchase over the past year. Media reports tend to focus on the ease with which you can find anything you want on the Internet. But don't believe the hype. When I use a P2P program, I tend to look for classic singles, import-only albums, rarities and bootlegs that I can't purchase legitimately. Some obscurities, such as German techno artist Ellen Allien's debut Be Wild, are impossible to find.
iTunes doesn't carry Be Wild, but it does have Allien's breakthrough album Stadtkind, as well as exclusive EPs from José Gonzalez and the Fray that you won't find in brick-and-mortar record stores. It's possible that you can find an illegal download of these items, too. But for argument's sake, let's look at what some of the digital music stores have to offer.
iTunes (www.apple.com/itunes): iTunes is the industry leader in digital music sales. You don't have to subscribe to anything; just download the iTunes program and start shopping.
Pros: In addition to an exhaustive music store, iTunes sells music videos, audiobooks, feature-length movies and even TV shows. If you don't want to buy anything, you can still download free podcasts (which are encoded as MP3s) and a smattering of free promotional tracks from Sarah McLachlan, Little Brother and others.
Cons: iTunes sells Advanced Audio Codec (AAC) music files. They are encoded with Digital Rights Management (DRM), which means you can transfer the files to as many as five computers. It seems odd that the free podcasts are easy-to-use MP3s -- a universal format -- while AAC music (that you've paid money for) is not.
eMusic (www.emusic.com): Unlike iTunes, eMusic doesn't sell individual songs, but subscriptions to the entire site. Rates begin at $9.99 a month for 40 tracks.
Pros: eMusic features a formidable range of independent labels, from cultish hip-hop imprint Stones Throw to trendsetting hard-rock label Victory Records. An array of respected music journalists such as Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad and feminist pop critic Ann Powers serve as curators, posting essays about the site's musical highlights. Most importantly, a purchased MP3 from eMusic has no DRM strings attached. You can use it however you want.
Cons: The subscription prices may dissuade those who just want to make a single purchase. You won't find much material from popular major-label artists. Worse, the site is difficult to navigate.
URGE (www.urge.com): URGE is fueled by Microsoft and MTV, which heavily promotes the store through television ads and online advertising campaigns. If you use a PC, you'll find it bundled in your Windows Media Player. Subscription tiers peak at $14.99 for All Access to Go, which allows you an unlimited amount of streaming music that you can play without downloading; a free trial of All Access to Go is available.
Pros: With MTV's clout, you can expect plenty of content. There are playlists compiled by celebrities such as John Waters, interviews with Tego Calderón and Ying Yang Twins, well-written essays, blogs and more.
Cons: URGE sells WMA music files, which you can play on a Windows Media Player. But you can't play it on an iPod. There are other weird DRM rules, regulations and provisions attached to URGE that are too lengthy (and tedious) to address in this article. Also, be warned that URGE takes up a lot of memory. Close a few programs before launching it or your computer might freeze.
Napster (www.napster.com): Before it was infamously dismantled by the recording industry, Napster exposed the world to the pleasures of illegal music file-sharing, and was one of the most influential Internet applications in history. It re-launched as a legitimate music store in 2003.
Pros: Unlike iTunes or URGE, you don't have to download any software to browse Napster's store. Meanwhile, its "NapsterLive" series features exclusive concerts by TV on the Radio, the Walkmen and others.
Cons: Like URGE, Napster sells WMA files, which can't be played on an iPod.
Rhapsody (www.rhapsody.com): Once you download a Rhapsody player, you can stream tracks before you purchase them, or just build lists of your favorites and listen to them indefinitely. The top service, Rhapsody to Go, costs $14.99 for an unlimited amount of streaming music; a 14-day free trial is available.
Pros: Like eMusic, Rhapsody uses music critics as curators. Current staff picks included Shuggie Otis' '70s soul gem Inspiration Information, a sign that these guys know about good music. You can also send streams of songs to friends via e-mail and instant messages.
Cons: Not all of the music is available for purchase. Some albums, such as Islands' Return to the Sea, can only be played through the Rhapsody player, and you can't actually buy the tracks. Sound confusing? As for Mobb Deep's The Infamous, you have to buy 14 out of its 16 tracks separately, and two songs aren't even available for purchase or stream. What gives?
In addition to the aforementioned sites, here are some niche-oriented stores worth checking out:
Beatport (www.beatport.com): For the DJs, this is the go-to site for new tracks from club producers such as Moby, M.A.N.D.Y. and Pier Bucci. Its prices ($1.50 and up per track) are a little more expensive than other sites, but at least it's cheaper than shelling out $12 for a vinyl copy.
Bleep (www.bleep.com): Originally launched by Warp Records, a U.K. label famous for its cutting-edge roster (Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada), Bleep now carries MP3 tracks and albums by dozens of similar-minded companies, from hip-hop imprint Anticon to punk/emo label Vagrant.
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