Friday, January 18, 2008

Buying Digital Music Finally Doesn't Suck

For years I've steered clear of digital music stores. I'm not opposed to buying MP3's, it's just that the music labels have made it too damn hard to enjoy (or even own) your digital downloads. Sure, iTunes has a good selection of music, but if you don't own an iPod then you are shit out of luck trying to load that music on your MP3 player. And yes, I am aware you can burn iTunes tracks and rip them back to your computer in regular old MP3 format; but taking a compressed file, uncompressing it (burning the CD) and then re-compressing it (ripping it back to your computer) will ruin the audio quality of your files. Plus, why should I have to run through so many hoops (and decrease my sound quality in the process) just so I can shift my content to other devices?

Herein lies the major problem with iTunes and most other digital music stores. No matter which way you get your content, whether it is 'purchasing' individual  tracks with restrictions on where you can and can't listen to them (a la iTunes) or paying a monthly fee for unlimited downloads (Napster, Rhapsody, Yahoo! Music) that expire the second your membership is terminated, the fact is that buying digital music is largely still miles amazonaway from matching the value of a CD. Yes, it is cheaper and more convenient (if you define 'convenience' by not having to leave the house) to buy music in digital form, but the restrictive DRM will always make it more attractive to download music for free from Bit Torrent sites or P2P networks.

I was one of those people for years (and still am). Yet, I would gladly pay for music if it could match the quality and convenience of what I can get for free, albeit illegally. Luckily Amazon understood this dilemma and used their considerable clout to do something proactive about it.

Launched in September of last year, the Amazon MP3 Store offered customers the opportunity to buy music free of all DRM restrictions. At first they only offered music from one major label (EMI), but as of last week they have signed on all four majors. I have no idea if the labels are participating in the Amazon store merely to humor their critics who say DRM is the main reason digital downloads aren't the cash cow the labels hoped they would be, or if they truly believe in this as a long-term business model. What I do know is that it is a step in the right direction and I am rooting for it to succeed.

With that in mind I decided to give Amazon a try and see for myself. In the last week I have purchased three albums from Amazon, which is approximately three more than I had purchased in the previous several years combined. Not only is purchasing music a cinch (especially if you have an Amazon account), but downloading the files is quick and easy. Once you download and install the Amazon MP3 Downloader (not a requirement, but I strongly recommend it) all it takes is one click for your purchased files to download and be added automatically to your iTunes or Windows Media Player library (with artwork included). How's that for convenience? Amazon also went through the trouble of encoding the majority of their songs in variable bit rate MP3 format, which provides the most efficient balance between file size and audio quality (as any former OiNK user how important this is).

While Amazon hasn't released any official sales numbers, spokesman have said they are "really pleased" with their early results.  Let's hope the numbers back up that enthusiasm and force the major labels to abandon this DRM nonsense altogether. Until then, you can bet I will continue to buy digital music from Amazon and nowhere else.

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