Some might argue that, like teen drinking or sex education, the only responsible option for this Russian site offering albums for pennies on the dollar is declaring it unacceptable.
But, much like those issues, I believe it's inaccurate and irresponsible to ignore it, since the temptation will be too great for many to resist. If they're going to indulge, they should do so in an informed manner.
I've known about www.allofmp3.com for some time, but refrained from writing about it largely because I suspect it's escaped the notice of online music fans legit and otherwise. Those downloading music legally were unlikely to encounter it, while those into file sharing and other forms of piracy were likely to balk at paying even the minimalist prices, not to mention handing out credit card and other information to the service.
The site is now making news worldwide, however, with the Russian government investigating and rejecting criminal charges of copyright infringement again the site. The site essentially escaped on a technicality, since Russian copyright laws do not cover digital files.
It's fair to assume a lot more people will know about this site and its offerings by the time the debate on this issue is through, making an honest appraisal of it in order.
The bottom line: While it may dismay the "just say no crowd, this is a well-run site with surprisingly few drawbacks other than the obvious: 1) Buyers are cheating the musicians and others out of rightful earnings and 2) While I experienced no problems with my credit or online privacy, I was rather uneasy providing information involving them (I used something other than my normal online purchase setup).
Legal or not, the site does a couple of things more music stores should:
- Charges by file sizes instead of by the song, album or other method that can result in wildly uneven pricing. At iTunes, for example, customers purchasing single songs can pay $1 for an hour of music or $1 for a few seconds of dead air. Allofmp3.com charges $10 for 500mb of music, about eight to 12 albums in MP3 format. This is about one-fifth to one-tenth what mainstream online stores charge.
- Allows users to select a wide variety of file formats from compressed files such as MP3 and Windows Media Audio to uncompressed CD audio roughly 10 to 20 times larger in size.
The key thing for most people, of course, is selection. In general allofmp3.com rivals that of most major music services in size, including some albums not available elsewhere and some omissions of common releases. It has a vast and nearly comprehensive collection of well-known and rare Miles Davis and John Coltrane albums, for instance, plus large collections by international performers that might command hefty import prices in the U.S. But there's also little or nothing by a wide range of other famed players (a single "best-of disc or a Ken Burns compilation is common).
Navigation is reasonably good, with separate pages for each letter of the alphabet listing performers by their first and/or last names. Artists are also searchable by category - the number of jazz fields is vast, maybe overly so - but this tends to be a less reliable way of finding performers. Links to "similar albums and "customers also bought are provided, so someone purchasing albums by Keith Jarrett or Joe Pass may encounter unfamiliar and overseas artists of note that might escape notice at most online stores.
The streaming audio preview feature is also commendable, with lo-fi versions of both exerpts and full- length tracks available free for registered users.
Signing up for an account isn't any better or worse than most online stores, with users required to buy "space in advance in amounts ranging from $5 to $100. There's no "volume discount, so those wanting to jump in tentatively can do so without fear of getting an inferior deal. Payments appear to be made on a secure server through a third-party service and, as mentioned, I have not experienced problems so far.
Purchasing the actual albums can be a time-consuming pain because each song must be selected and downloaded individually, whereas most mainstream stores allow entire albums to be downloaded at once. The default file names are also a long and jumbled compilation of artist and album information, making typing in each song name an additional time requirement for many.
Truth is, the positives of this site outweigh the negatives if all one considers is the ability to download and purchase music. The heaviest price to pay is one of conscience and it seems unlikely Russia's decision not to prosecute will change the minds of people who feel strongly one way or the other.
If one is looking for a moral justification - an admittedly shaky proposition - perhaps a "shareware mentality where albums deemed worthy are subsequently purchased from mainstream sources is one suggestion. For others, the debate may be unnecessary, since sites like eMusic.com offer options where albums don't cost all that much more and the rightful owners get their dues.
Author's full disclosure: By writing this review I am, of course, admitting to acquiring albums from a source of questionable legality. As such, I'm in no position to condemn others who do so, but I will state my personal policy is any "keeper album that can be legitimately and reasonably purchased - $300 from somebody at eBay is not "reasonable - will be (as someone who has opted for the study/ collection of jazz over grad school, it seems safe saying I spend well in excess of the average listener). Also, while I have some unease about the full-length previews, I admit they have proven valuable at times as a reviewer when a quick listen to obscure material is needed.