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Digital Music

A Guide to Online Music Services

By Published: August 26, 2004
MusicRebellion

Not a bad choice if you can live with the Windows Media Format. A very good selection of music is offered by the song or album, with well-known artists generally in WMA format and independent ones in MP3s. There is no membership required, but users need to either deposit money from a credit card account before making purchases (unused money can be refunded) or use proprietary software to set up an account. The pricing scheme is a bit odd—some songs are priced based on demand—from a few cents (low) to a few dollars (high), according to the site—and apparently they plan to expand the practice.



BuyMusic

OK service, with some pluses and minuses that might steer customers one way or the other. Songs are in WMA format and generally follow the 99-cent song, $9.99 album pricing structure. A big plus is users simply buy music without memberships, having to pay in advance, using custom software or going through other steps. Selection is decent with more than 400,000 songs and many major labels, but searching is cumbersome compared to iTunes. A big minus is songs can only be played on the computer they are downloaded to or portable players that support WMA. Also, some users report BuyMusic's WMA files don't always play on supposedly compatible players. Finally, some songs can be burned to CD unlimited times, but others only once.



RealRhapsody

A $10-per-month service that offer no downloads—music can only be streamed or burned to CD. Burning requires purchasing songs for 99 cents each. Does not work on Macs. In its favor is a huge music collection, including all five major record labels.



Sony Connect

Too many drawbacks to recommend, most notably Sony's proprietary ATRAC compression format which only works with select Sony-brand music players. The problem with using such players is they don't play MP3s, so the rest of your music collection must also be converted to ATRACs. Downloaded songs can be played on up to three computers and burned to CD, but require Sony's software to do so. Songs are 99 cents, albums generally $9.99, with a decent size library—but it's smaller than iTunes and other leading services.



And finally, the author's personal pick:



eMusic

An outstanding choice for those interested in small label and independent artists, but one to avoid for those looking for top-selling names and record labels. A monthly fee allows a specific number of song downloads ($20 for 90 songs; other price plans and supplemental packs are available). All files are in unprotected MP3 format and can be downloaded unlimited times. The library has 400,000 songs, with fans of traditional jazz and emerging artists most likely to find material of interest. Searching is time- consuming and a somewhat awkward program is required to download the files, but once the program is learned the actual download process is one of the simplest available. Also, unused downloads at the end of each month do not carry over into the follow month's account. Nonetheless, the author—fresh off downloading premium boxed sets from the likes of Bill Evans and Chick Corea for perhaps 20 percent of the record store price—recommends this service without hesitation, even though it will likely never get the support (and files) of most major labels.



A final tip: don't limit online music purchases to the stores. Many artists and labels sell downloadable songs and albums at their web sites, often at lower prices and with fewer copy protection restrictions.



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