Archive for the ‘digital music’ Category

Napster’s new MP3 store

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Yesterday Napster began selling high-quality, DRM-free MP3s. This puts it in direct competition with Amazon MP3, and to a lesser extent with iTunes (particularly iTunes Plus). I have spent some time playing with it to see how well it works compared to its major competitors.

As one would expect, the songs are available as DRM-free MP3s, encoded at a constant 256 kbps (at least the ones I’ve purchased so far). Pricing appears to be 99 cents per track. Album prices are similar to what they are on Amazon or iTunes. Annoyingly, the prices are not visible unless you hover your mouse over the buy button.

Thanks to Napster’s several-years-old business of renting music, its MP3 store seems to have the largest catalog of songs available. Certainly, I’ve been able to find a number of songs that Amazon doesn’t have. Unfortunately, for the same reason the store also lists lots of tracks which aren’t for sale (although you can listen to the previews). Subscribers to the rental store can listen to the entire song before buying, instead of just the usual 30-second preview.

Searching and buying music is no different from any other music store, although the search bar doesn’t remember previous searches. Napster made the bizarre choice though of labeling the buy button “MP3″. The preview button has the somewhat more obvious label “:30″. When you click the buy button, a confirmation dialog box pops up, which changes to an option to download now or go to your purchase history if you confirm the purchase. Depending on your browser settings, when the song starts to download there may be an option to open it in the jukebox program of your choice.

[Note: some of the above information only applies to using the store through a web browser.]

Now for the bad news. Napster’s MP3 store only works with Firefox on Macs, and Firefox, IE, and Napster’s own application on PCs. It failed to load in Safari when I tried spoofing the user agent, so it apparently relies on some nonstandard coding that only the listed browsers support. I find this to be rather annoying, as I use Safari for almost all my web browsing, keeping Firefox around only as a backup. Worse than that, though, is that the store is based on Flash. It runs noticeably slower than Amazon or iTunes, and is often a bit wonky.

I also pulled out my old PC craptop to see how the store worked with the Napster application. It seemed to be faster, and the search bar remembers previous searches, but it still acted wonky at times. Purchased tracks download automatically into your Napster music library.

My final verdict: Unless you’re already using Napster (in which case the integration with your existing music library makes it more convenient), only visit its store if you aren’t able to find a song on Amazon MP3 or iTunes Plus. Otherwise it’s not worth the hassle.

Everything except the song I want

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

Since Amazon opened it’s MP3 store in September, I’ve been slowly converting my collection of DRMed songs acquired for free from iTunes to DRM-free MP3s as they become available on Amazon. I’m now down to 44 iTMS free songs that haven’t been replaced with MP3 or iTunes Plus versions. Not bad, all things considered, but there’s a handful of those remaining songs in relation to which both stores have become quite annoying. For two of those songs (”German Test Drive” by Spymob and “She Moves In Secret Ways” by Polly Paulusma), both stores offer high-quality versions of every album released by the artist - except the one the song came from. >_<

Another song ("Telescope Eyes" by Eisley) appears to have all but completely disappeared off the face of the earth. Even the physical CD ("Laughing City") is out of print. Making this even more annoying, the song itself is not entirely gone - but all the available versions of it are 30 seconds shorter than the one I have. I don't care if the upgraded version of a song I buy is from a different album, but I want the same version of the song.

Finally, there's one other song ("In The Shadows" by The Rasmus) which is available from Amazon. However, since I ended up buying the whole album from iTunes shortly after getting the song for free, I'm waiting for it to show up in iTunes Plus (which, btw, has another album by the same artist >_<).

That brings me to another rant. At this point, all four major labels have decided that DRM isn’t working and agreed to offer their catalogs on Amazon. However, only EMI has agreed to do the same on iTunes. This is getting rather annoying, as I’d like to upgrade as many as possible of the remaining 728 DRMed songs I have in my library, both for the higher quality and to get rid of the DRM. While iTunes and the iPod are unlikely to disappear for decades, I’d like to future-proof my library as much as possible in the event they do disappear, as well as leave open the possibility of using equipment that can’t handle Fairplay. Hopefully the contracts will come up for renegotiation later this year and the other labels will agree to make their music available on iTunes without DRM.

On an unrelated note, Apple today released a 32GB version of the iPod touch. That’s the minimum size I would consider buying, as my music library is some 18GB. The $500 price tag means I won’t be buying one anytime soon, though, unless I get a lot of cash and/or Apple gift cards for my birthday next week. I read somewhere that flash memory prices are supposed to drop dramatically this year, so I expect by September Apple will cut the price. Or better yet, release a 64GB version, which I’d rather have as it’s about the same capacity as my current iPod, so it will hold the same amount of photo and video content.

Amie Street and SellaBand reviews

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

The last few days I’ve been checking out a pair of online music stores that specialize in indie music, Amie Street and SellaBand. Both offer music as DRM-free MP3s, and SellaBand also offers CDs.

Amie Street

I’ve spent the most time with Amie Street. It offers a sizable amount of music from various independent labels as digital downloads. Finding a particular artist is easy enough, assuming it’s there. If you’re looking for new music, you have three options. First is to browse the various Top 20 lists on the site’s homepage. Next, you can do a general search by genre. Finally, and most interestingly, the artists on the site are tagged with the names of artists they sound similar to, so you can search by known artists as well. For example, while the site doesn’t have anything by Lacuna Coil, a search for them led me to Nemesea, which I’d never heard of before but decided I liked after listening to the previews. (I ultimately downloaded their album from SellaBand, but more on that in a bit) Song previews on Amie Street are very long, from one to two minutes in length, giving you plenty of time to decide if you like the song or not.

Amie Street uses a unique pricing structure. Newly-added songs start out being free, and gradually go up in price depending on how popular they become, with a maximum price of 98 cents. From what I’ve seen, album prices are merely the sum of the prices of the individual songs. This makes it very convenient to buy one or two songs from an album and then go back to buy the rest at a later time. Buying multiple individual songs from an album is very easy, as each song has a check box. Check off the ones you want, and there’s an action in a popup menu near the top of the page to buy all selected songs. For reasons unknown, Amie Street requires you to buy credit ahead of time using a credit card or Paypal. Easy enough to do, but an unnecessary extra step. Credit is available in several amounts to fit any budget. Buying credit also buys you some recommendations (or RECs) that you can then give out to any song you’ve purchased from the site. If the song subsequently goes up in popularity (and price), you can “cash in” and get back as store credit at least half the difference between the price you purchased it at and the price it is when you cash in. So far I haven’t made any use of the REC system.

Bitrates on Amie Street vary. According to the site’s FAQ, they strive to make as much of their music as possible available in 256kbps VBR, but as many artists submit their music to the site directly, bitrates are all over the place; the handful of songs I bought range from 128kbps to 320kbps. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t list what bitrate any particular song is encoded with - you have to buy the song and download it to find out. For that reason, if high bitrates are important to you (they are to me), I recommend buying one song from an album first to check the bitrate, then buying the rest of the album. (That’s what happened regarding the Nemesea album I found. I bought the first song from Amie Street, discovered it was only 128kbps, then went looking for a site that had the album at a higher bitrate.)

Amie Street keeps track of which songs you’ve purchased on a page called My Library. Unlike or iTunes, this lets you re-download songs without paying for them again in the event your hard drive crashes. (There are, of course, other things you can do with this feature, but I won’t mention those) All in all, Amie Street is a pretty good site for buying indie music from.


SellaBand is more oriented towards getting new artists published than actually selling music. The biggest feature is that you can buy what amounts to a share in an artist. Each artist’s page has a few songs (demos, presumably) that can be streamed (but not downloaded), so you can decide if they’re worth buying into. Once 5000 shares have been sold, the site then pays to have the artist go to a studio and record an album. Besides regular editions of the album, which is sold both in CD format and 256kbps MP3, 5000 limited edition CDs are also made for the band’s shareholders (SellaBand calls them (Believers”). Believers receive the limited edition CDs for free, and can sell extra copies (if they purchased multiple shares in a band) on the site.

As mentioned before, songs can be purchased either on CD or as 256kbps MP3s. Regular CDs are $10, limited edition CDs are $15, and MP3s are 50 cents (some are also available for free). Like Amie Street, SellaBand accepts both credit cards and Paypal, however you don’t have to pre-purchase credit (although that’s an option).

The main problem with SellaBand is that currently only four bands are selling albums on the site, so it’s not a very good resource for finding new music (at least if you want to buy it immediately).

Trouble at Amazon MP3?

Monday, October 8th, 2007

In the last week I’ve noticed that at least three albums have been removed from Amazon MP3. Two of them were ones I had wanted to buy songs off of, and the third was the one I mentioned in my previous review with the mixed-up song titles. I have no idea if the other two albums had the same problem, but that is the only reasonable explanation I can come up with. Given that I have only looked at six dozen or so albums with the intention of actually buying songs, this problem appears to be much more widespread on Amazon than I would have expected. I hope Amazon resolves this and brings back those albums quickly.

I don’t like you either, Sony

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

The head of litigation at Sony BMG effectively just called most of their customers thieves. While testifying in one of the numerous music-piracy trials, she claimed that ripping CDs to make backups or to put music on an iPod was stealing. What an idiot. I hope Sony loses the case big-time.

Amazon MP3 review

Friday, September 28th, 2007

Earlier this week released its new MP3 download store into public beta. Known as Amazon MP3, it is the latest store to compete with the iTunes Store in the market for legal digital music downloads. I’ve been experimenting with it for the last few days and have been quite impressed with its catalog and ease of use.

Other stores have attempted to compete with iTunes, with little success. Most are crippled with DRM (digital rights/restrictions management) that is incompatible with iTunes and the iPod, and is far more restrictive than Apple’s Fairplay DRM. The few selling tracks without DRM generally have limited catalogs, and at least one (Walmart) requires Windows to work. Amazon MP3 avoids most of the problems associated with other digital music stores, and will likely be very successful as long as the record labels don’t pull out.

As the name suggests, Amazon MP3 sells all its music in MP3 format. There’s no DRM attached, so the songs can be played on virtually any computer or digital music player. Bitrate varies, but is always high quality. A lot of songs are at a flat bitrate of 256 kbps (the same as iTunes Plus songs), while others use variable bitrate (VBR) encoding, with the average bitrate anywhere from 207 kbps to 280 kbps. This is considerably higher quality than most songs sold through iTunes or other digital music stores, which generally use 128 kbps encoding.

Amazon MP3’s catalog is quite impressive, with around 2 million songs at launch, giving it a broad enough selection to make it popular with a lot of people right from the start. Naturally, it includes content from EMI (the only one of the major labels to renounce DRM) and lots of indie labels. Even more impressive, though, is that Amazon apparently convinced some or all of the other three big labels to sell their music through the store. I’m guessing they consider this an experiment. Hopefully enough people will buy music from Amazon MP3 to convince them that people want high-quality DRM-free music downloads, and they’ll drop the DRM nonsense.

Amazon’s pricing makes iTunes look expensive. Individual songs are 89 or 99 cents each, and most albums are under $9.99. Songs with the same quality on iTunes are $1.29 each, with albums at $9.99 (and often higher).

Buying and downloading songs is easy. Amazon provides a program called the Amazon MP3 Downloader that you install on your computer to manage downloads. When you click on the “Buy” button for the song or album you want to purchase, a small .amz file is downloaded to your computer which tells the MP3 Downloader what to download (all purchases are handled through Amazon’s 1-click system). Some browsers will ask whether you want to open or save this file; choosing the former option automatically passes the .amz to the Downloader. Saving the .amz (as my browser does for anything) also works, but you then have to open it separately. Once the .amz has been opened, the Downloader starts downloading the song or album you just purchased. Multiple songs and albums can be queued at once, but the current version of the Downloader can only download one song at a time.

Once a song has been downloaded, the Downloader automatically adds it to your iTunes (Mac or Windows) or Windows Media Player (Windows) library - an excellent feature for those who already use those programs to manage their music libraries. This feature can be disabled if you use another program to manage your music library, but you will have to manually import the songs from wherever they are downloaded to.

There are some imporvements that could be made to improve the experience. First, it would be nice to use a shopping cart, so you can buy multiple songs/albums at once without having to open a .amz file for each one. Second, it is possible for third-party programs to create playlists in iTunes and add songs to them as part of the import process. It would be nice if the MP3 Downloader did that. Currently I have a smart playlist set up to catch songs purchased from Amazon MP3 that looks at the comments (all songs from Amazon have an ID number in the Comment field, usually preceded by “ ” or “ Song ID: “), but even that misses songs that don’t have “” in the Comment field. I also found an outright error: on one of the albums I purchased, the titles on three of the songs were mixed up (iTunes is also guilty of this problem). Presumably this is a rare problem, as there would likely be a lot of discussion on the net if it was widespread.

The only other downside to Amazon MP3 is that it’s US-only. I don’t understand why the record companies won’t allow digital music stores to be global stores; that alone would cut down on a lot of piracy if people weren’t forced to choose between outrageously expensive import CDs and file-sharing sites for acquiring foreign music.

Minor flaws aside, Amazon MP3 is off to a great start. It’s easy to use, and the music works anywhere. I highly encourage people to support it.