Finally, as most of the major music labels have made portions of their libraries available online DRM-free, consumers have some choice in where to buy their music. Here are some great places to kickstart your search.
This list is in no particular order, but each option is ranked according to the following criteria: (1) speedy delivery, (2) system footprint — do you have install a resource-intensive program to download files?, (3) user interface, (4) effectively connects users with new music. Obviously another important component is the selection of music available, but as that changes from week to week it’s outside the scope of this article.
1. First on the list is Amazon.com/mp3, a relative newcomer to the mp3 downloads race, Amazon has targeted the group of consumers who have no tolerance for DRM and are looking for an inexpensive, legal alternative (most of us?). You own the music after downloading it.
- Speedy delivery: Amazon begins the download process immediately after you approve the purchase. In several tests, mp3s over 3 minutes required less than 30 seconds to download (using a 10mbps cable connection). 5/5
- System footprint: upon making your first mp3 purchase, Amazon downloads a very small utility that manages downloads. In the future it will automatically launch when called from the Amazon mp3 site. One drawback? The utility doesn’t ask where to store your files at the outset, so you may want to customize it right after installing the app. 4/5
- User interface: the Amazon mp3 site provides a fairly standard set of navigation with several hierarchically placed columns. It features filters for price and genre. Overall a simple interface that meets the need. 5/5
- Connects users with new music: this is a struggle for Amazon. Though the company provides lists of top mp3s sold, top artists, hot new songs and featured artists, it still frequently feels difficult to find new music that’s compatible with past buying trends. 2/5
Average score: 4/5, a good option for people who just want music.
2. eMusic.com takes a different approach by charging a monthly subscription fee to download a number of mp3s per month. Right now the subscription levels are $9.99 for 30 mp3s, $14.99 for 50, and $19.99 for 75. eMusic also focuses on independent labels so you may be able to find lots of new music from lesser known artists.
- Speedy delivery: eMusic also begins downloads immediately with fast transfer speeds. 5/5
- System footprint: a small application eMusic calls the download manager organizes and manages your downloads. 5/5
- User interface: straightforward navigation along with user recommendations for additional music. 5/5
- Connects users with new music: community aspects help eMusic partially fill this need with fan and user lists, music charts and lots of sorting options. 4/5
Average score: 4.75/5, a strong option for users who don’t mind a subscription-based business model.
3. iTunes has dominated the online music downloads space for a while now and continues to innovate with compelling new features. Apple charges $.99 for tracks protected by DRM and provides mp3 downloads of some songs for slightly more.
- Speedy delivery: iTunes typically provides very quick downloads but during peak periods it can slow down due to its popularity. 4/5
- System footprint: iTunes takes a lot of system resources and can take several seconds to load even on modern systems. On many of the download options, Quicktime is bundled. 3/5
- User interface: very easy to browse by genre and pull up many popularity lists. iTunes brings mp3s, video and podcasts under one umbrella. 5/5
- Connects users with new music: thousands of lists created regularly by community members. Popularity charts provide a good starting place for finding more good music based on genre. It’s easy to see user ratings for each song and album. 5/5
Average score: 4.25/5, de facto standard in the industry, good for iPod users and those looking for an immersive experience.
4. Rhapsody, another member of the subscription club allows you to download and stream any of its music to various devices as long as your account is active. The standard plan is $12.99 per month, but to store the songs on a portable mp3 player costs $14.99. To download songs without DRM costs an additional $.89 for subscribers.
- Speedy delivery: in speed tests Rhapsody began downloads immediately on a consistent basis. 5/5
- System footprint: Rhapsody software not as resource intensive as iTunes but more significant than other options. 4/5
- User interface: not possible to even preview music without installing site plugin, too much reliance on application installation on web site. Emphasis placed on having a subscription to even preview more than 10 songs per month. 2/5
- Connects users with new music: lots of suggestions and popularity lists, editorial reviews, genre sorting. Community features not as tightly integrated as other options. 3/5
Average score: 3.5/5, may work for those who can afford a continual investment and who demand lots of new music regularly.
5. Yahoo offers a subscription based service called MUSIC Unlimited for only $5.99 per month if you pay yearly. That’s a pretty cheap way to have a lot of music at your fingertips, at least when you’re at a computer. The site doesn’t provide a way to download music onto an mp3 player unless you pay an extra $.79 along with your subscription.
- Speedy delivery: in speed tests Yahoo began downloads immediately on a consistent basis. 5/5
- System footprint: again not as large a footprint as iTunes, but more than Amazon. 4/5
- User interface: some neat integration with music videos, lots of top lists and navigation is intuitive. Music blogs and reviews give a nice community boost. 5/5
- Connects users with new music: aggregation of blog feeds provides some great music suggestions but can be awkward to find other music based on what you’ve already purchased. 4/5
Average score: 4.5/5, inexpensive option for those on a computer regularly.