I have bought 194 songs from iTunes now. I thought Apple did a great thing in providing a simple pricing scheme and software that made it easy and fun. They also offer a very good selection of songs. And now they have video, movies, and TV shows. The only downside was that the songs could only be played using iTunes on the computer or on an iPod. However you could still burn the songs to a CD and play them wherever you wanted. Governments in Europe have insisted that Apple stop selling a proprietary format, wanting to avoid another Microsoft type of monopoly. Some music labels now sell high quality songs (MP3′s are generally have less sound quality than CD’s) on iTunes without any restrictions on how the songs are played (and charge an extra 30 cents). Other music companies have said they will stop partnering with Apple altogether because they do not like Apple’s terms.
So it was kind of interesting when, a couple of months ago, Amazon introduced a new digital music store. The pricing scheme wasn’t as simple, but was similar: some songs would be 99 cents, like on iTunes, but some would be less and others more. Albums, instead of being $9.99 like on iTunes, would vary in price as well. There were no monthly fees. And the songs had no protection on them, recorded in a format (MP3) that could be played on any MP3 player and any computer, even on my Palm.
I figured that, like eMusic, the selection would be pretty bad. I hadn’t bought any songs in a while so I didn’t look into it any further. But some people on iLounge said it was a good service, so this weekend I tried it out. I was able to find a handful of songs to buy. Most were only 89 cents and none more than 99. The quality of the songs is very good: 256 kbps (variable) instead of the usual 128 at iTunes, or even the 160 that I used to convert my CD’s to MP3′s. But they still really need help on the checkout process. On iTunes I can click “Add to Cart”. In fact, I can do that on Amazon just about anywhere else but the music store. In the music store you can only choose to buy the song, which then walks you through the whole Amazon checkout process: enter password, choose a credit card, choose a shipping address, etc. It’s not terrible, but unnecessarily complicated when I have 6 songs picked out and had to step through the process six times. (Amazon support said there is no cart option and the best way to download songs is using 1click, which I had disabled. I have since enabled 1click shopping.) Once the downloads were complete, I received 6 different receipts and I imagine they will show up separately on my credit card statement. That just bothers me.
I also had to download a helper program from Amazon and install it, but it is a very small program (less than a megabyte), nowhere close to the massive 54 MB download for iTunes. The songs seem to download fairly reasonably, but since I have dialup internet, I paused the downloads until I could get everything in a queue. However, each time I bought another song, the queue started downloading again and I had to pause it again before continuing. Again, kind of a pain, though I know dialup users are the exception.
I only downloaded one song right away and received a receipt notice from Amazon for 89 cents a few hours later. I kept the queue on pause for the other songs until later. That night when I resumed the downloads, I got a message that one song was no longer available for download and that I should contact customer service. I don’t know what happened there (another song from the same album downloaded fine), but customer service was able to re-enable that song for download. On iTunes you can re-download any song you have purchased, even if you delete it later (I guess unless it isn’t available anymore).
The neat part is that the helper program automatically installs the song into my iTunes library, complete with cover artwork. Or it does if iTunes is running anyway. When one song was done, I had iTunes closed and then got a Windows error report message saying the song couldn’t be added to the iTunes library. Good idea, but they don’t seem to be quite there yet. However Amazon is still being pretty smart here by cooperating with iPod owners rather than trying to beat them. After all, iPod owners are the ones buying music online in the biggest numbers. Alternatively, you can have songs added to your Windows Media Player library.
The flexibility of owning high-quality highly compatible MP3′s makes all the trouble of purchasing the songs worth it to me. I would think Amazon will eventually work the kinks out of the process (they are still saying the service is “beta” which means they are still testing it out). I really don’t understand why the music companies would be so agreeable to what Amazon is doing and not Apple, but for now I will be checking Amazon for songs I want to buy before going to iTunes.