North Wind And Sun

Amherst Bytes: A World Out of Tune, Or What to do if iTunes Pulls a Houdini

In June of this year, Apple announced that its iTunes Music Store had
surpassed a critical threshold, selling over five billion songs since
its inception. Not that this was much of a surprise – Apple had long
before solidified itself as the market leader in online music
distribution, trumping services offered by giants like Amazon and
Wal-mart. However, the numbers did reveal the success of the digital
distribution model, which, led by Apple, has shown its mettle over the
more traditional distribution models.

But what if Steve Jobs and company one day decided to pull the plug on
the whole operation? The prospect, of course, seems all the more
unlikely as Apple sells more and more tracks, but earlier this month
iTunes Vice President Eddy Cue proposed just that. Responding to the
repeated requests of music publishers that Apple increase the royalties
it gives to publishers and artists to fifteen cents, Cue made Apple’s
position alarmingly clear: “If the [iTunes Music Store] was forced to
absorb any increase in the royalty rate,” he wrote, “the result would
be to significantly increase the likelihood of the store operating at a
financial loss – which is no alternative at all.”

In other words, if Apple were forced to pay six cents more per song in
royalties, the iTunes Music Store would become less profitable. At the
heart of this struggle are the interests of the companies involved:
Apple wants to keep song prices low so that people keep filling up
their iPods, while the record companies, making no money from iPod
sales, want a bigger piece of the pie.

All of this, honestly, is beside the point. More importantly, the
modern music coinsurer does not want his or her music consumption
stymied by squabbling executives at Apple and SonyBMG. The point is
that one needs options. Thus, in an effort to remove some of our eggs
from the proverbial online music distribution service basket, let’s
take a second to look at three of the more wholesome iTunes
alternatives.

AmazonMp3

When AmazonMp3 emerged from beta this past January, its main draw
instantly became its (graceful) lack of digital rights management
(DRM). Songs downloaded from Amazon’s service, are your songs, allowing
you to do whatever you wish with them – burn them to discs, use them on
music players that support Mp3 playback, play them on more than three
computers, etc. Moreover, AmazonMp3’s offerings are all encoded at an
average of 256 kilobytes per second, which, in non-tech speak, means
that they are pretty damn good.

As far as pricing goes, AmazonMp3 features a plan similar to that of
the iTunes Music Store. Individual songs range from $.89 to $.99 each,
and albums from $5.99 to $9.99. The AmazonMp3 catalog currently
contains over five million songs, from labels both large and small.
While it may at first glance seems skewed toward popular music, the
number of more obscure artists available is a pleasant surprise.

Rhapsody

Rhapsody, I admit, is a bit tricky to understand at first. Its basic
service allows subscribers to listen (note the word choice) to an
unlimited number of songs for $12.99 a month. With special Rhapsody
Software, subscribers can also burn purchased tracks to discs, and,
with a Rhapsody To Go membership, may even put the songs on supported
portable music players. Of course, it is here that corporate power
grabbing makes itself present again – Rhapsody To Go is not supported by
Apple’s iPod line of products. Moreover, if you decide to cancel your
Rhapsody membership, all of your streamed tracks will cease to
function, meaning that it is better to purchase songs rather than
stream them. Purchased tracks are DRM-free and ring in at $.99 each.

eMusic

eMusic is, for all intents and purposes, the music-lover’s download
service: Its subscription-based model encourages avid music exploration
and consumption. The service, of course, does have some limitations.
For one, eMusic does not utilize DRM in it’s files, so big record
companies have refused to do business with it. This situation results
in a music catalog that pales (numerically) in comparison to those of
the aforementioned services. Regardless, eMusic more than makes up for
the loss of artists like Britney Spears (alas, eMusic does not sell
“Womanizer”), with the inclusion of many more independent artists.

Subscribing to eMusic is similar to buying monthly minutes for a cell
phone – without rollover. An obvious ploy to encourage more reckless
11th-hour downloading, eMusic’s painful lack of rollover downloads is
the service’s main – and I dare say, only – drawback. If your downloads
remain unspent a month after they are allocated, eMusic clears them out
and gives you a new set.

This is why eMusic’s pricing options are so important. The service
offers a number of different subscription plans, ranging from “eMusic
Mini Monthly” (10 downloads, $5.99 a month) to the more (extensive)
“eMusic Connoisseur” (300 downloads $74.99 a month). eMusic also offers
a number of annual plans, but if you are like me, you fear that kind of
commitment. Lastly, subscribers are allowed to cancel their
subscriptions at any time – a welcome allowance to be sure.

Choosing between these three (of many) services depends entirely on
your music-listening practices. If you can’t go a week of your life
without discovering a new artist or hearing a new song, eMusic is
certainly the choice for you. Or, if you only foresee yourself
downloading a few tracks here and there, stick with Rhapsody or
AmazonMp3. Any of these services is more sustainable than iTunes, which
employs DRM and does not provide freedom of usage. In the unlikely
event that iTunes is one day usurped or otherwise disappears, promise
me one thing: that you won’t keep your mouth hanging open for too long.

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