6 music services compared: Who can bust the iTunes monopoly?

Over the past few months, I’ve been sampling all of the major U.S.-based competitors to the iTunes Music Store, as well as a few fascinating minor-league competitors. In this post, I’ll show you how each one stacks up against iTMS in terms of pricing and available features. After my testing was complete, I had a new favorite music service, and after you read my report you might decide it’s right for you too.

Update: At least one of the services I discuss here has significantly changed its policies since this post was published. For a look at what's changed with eMusic and a tally of how much I saved by forgoing iTunes, see Friday follow-up: six online music services revisited.]

What does a monopoly look like? In 2009, you can get a pretty good idea by looking at Apple’s iTunes Music Store (iTMS). It has overwhelming market share with a hockey-stick growth trajectory, is designed to work exclusively with the enormously profitable iPod/iPhone family of hardware devices (another near-monopoly), and appears to be immune from pricing pressure. Having a monopoly isn’t illegal, unless a court or governmental agency rules that you’re trying to abuse the monopoly position (just ask Microsoft). In fact, if you can stay on the right side of the antitrust regulators, having a monopoly is like a license to print profits.

Apple’s success in digital music is not for lack of competition, however. Over the past few months, I’ve been sampling all of the major U.S.-based competitors to the iTunes Music Store, as well as a few fascinating minor-league competitors. In this post, I’ll show you how each one stacks up against iTMS in terms of pricing and available features. After my testing was complete, I had a new favorite music service, and after you read my report you might decide it’s right for you too.

In all, I compared iTunes to six competitors, all of which sell music downloads sanctioned by the labels that own the digital rights to those tunes: Amazon MP3, Zune Marketplace (Microsoft), and Rhapsody (RealNetworks) are all divisions of much larger companies; eMusic, Lala, and Amie Street are smaller independent services trying to carve out niches.

Here are the criteria I used:

Price: I assembled a shopping list of seven albums I was considering buying. All but one of the albums had been released in the past year. Three were on RIAA-affiliated labels, with the other four on independent (non-RIAA) labels. I did not evaluate any service based on the price of individual tracks. All six services were less expensive overall than the iTunes Music Store. The exact amount of those savings varied greatly, however.

Selection: Apple’s dominance is due in no small part to its ability to negotiate deals with record labels big and small. Only one iTunes competitor could match the iTMS selection on my shopping list, with the indie services at a particular disadvantage. All of the tunes I found were available in non-DRM format. Apple insists on using the AAC format; every other service sold tracks in the more widely supported industry-standard MP3 format, usually at bit rates of 256K or greater. [Update: I edited this sentence to address criticism in comments below. Although AAC and MP3 are both supported by standards-setting bodies, my point was about playback support in consumer devices. MP3 is much more widely supported than AAC. In my two-year-old car and in my one-year-old consumer DVD player, for example, I can directly play back tracks burned to CD in their native format. Neither device supports AAC format.]

I’ve compared the price and selection data in an info graphic. Click the image below to see the full comparison (and then click through to see the rest of the screen-shot gallery.)

User experience: The three biggest services (including iTMS) have their own full featured music playback programs, which also offer access to the associated music stores. The other services offer web-based interfaces, with small utilities to make the download experience easier. In no case was this a make-or-break feature, but the comparisons are interesting.

Sampling new tunes: None of the services I looked at include a guarantee of satisfaction. If you buy a track or an album, that transaction is complete. Most of the services I looked at follow the iTunes model, offering 30-second samples that might or might not help you decide whether an album is worth buying. Three of the services go much further, though, allowing you to listen to full tracks and albums on demand. What’s the catch?

Recovering previous purchases: If you buy an unprotected album from the iTunes Music Store, you’re expected to make a backup copy. If you lose it, the terms of service are brutally clear: “Products may only be downloaded once; after being downloaded, they cannot be replaced if lost for any reason.” But two iTMS alternatives are more kind-hearted and allow you to download purchases onto different PCs if necessary.

With that as preamble, head to the next page to learn how to save up to 26% on music downloads.

Page 2: Amazon and Lala are the low-price alternatives If you want to cut your iTunes bill by at least 10%, one of these services is for you. But the upstart Lala has a lot more to offer than any of its big rivals.

Page 3: Zune and Rhapsody subscriptions let you play anything With either of these subscription-based services you can download any track in their catalog and play it on a PC or sync to a supported device, as long as you’re willing to pay a monthly fee. The Zune Pass has a huge edge over Rhapsody’s offerings.

Page 4: eMusic and Amie Street are interesting indie alternatives If you prefer the obscure, one of these services might feel right. You won’t find chart-topping hits here, but there’s a deep selection of independent artists and some creative pricing models.

Page 5: The wrap-up How do these six services stack up when compared with the iTunes juggernaut? Here are my personal opinions and some recommendations.

Page 2: Amazon and Lala -->

 

Amazon MP3

Price: Always matches, often beats the iTunes download price by a buck or more per album

Who it’s best for: Price-conscious music lovers who want a huge selection at a discount

Verdict: What’s not to like? Amazon’s web page is easy to use, its selection is huge, and it sells the same product as iTunes for less.

Lala

Price: Consistently lowest of all music services, lower even than Amazon; for a few pennies per track, offers “web albums” that can be streamed unlimited number of times

Who it’s best for: Budget-conscious music lovers who want low-priced downloads and a subscription-like service with pay-as-you-go rates

Verdict: My new favorite music service lets you listen to your personal music collection from any PC and download tracks at unbeatable low prices. The only drawback is that web albums can’t be synced to a portable device.

It’s hard not to love Amazon MP3. It has a selection that is nearly as big as Apple’s, and its prices are consistently better for MP3-formatted tracks at high-quality bitrates. The Amazon downloader works well on every version of Windows I’ve tried it on (the download page offers Mac OS X and Linux versions as well). When you buy an album, it shows up in your iTunes or Windows Media Player library with no extra steps required.

The Amazon MP3 website delivers a crisp, efficient shopping experience, with excellent search tools and Amazon’s huge ratings and reviews database to help you form judgments. Visiting the site daily is worthwhile for any serious music fan, to check out the daily deal, which typically offers a new album or reissue at a loss-leader price of $1.99 or $3.99.

As for the e-commerce experience, it’s best summarized as: “Buy, download, move aside for the next customer, please.” You can listen to 30-second samples but can’t play a full track until you purchase it. And you can download a track once, period. Like iTMS, Amazon MP3 doesn’t offer refunds or second-chance downloads (unless your initial download goes wrong, of course).

Despite all its virtues, Amazon MP3 is no longer my favorite online music haunt. That award now goes to Lala, an independent music service that tries to fill the gap between iTunes-style downloads and subscription-based services. For the most part, it succeeds.

If you do nothing but download MP3 tracks, you’ll be impressed with Lala’s prices and selection. In my price-comparison table, I highlighted the low prices for each album in green, and Lala was the undisputed winner for each one. Each album was typically discounted $2.00 or more compared to its big rivals. Wilco’s Summerteeth, for example, was $10 at iTMS and all its rivals. At Lala, the same album was $7.49. Lala has daily specials a la Amazon MP3, too.

Not sure a song is worth 89 cents? You can listen to any track, start to finish, once. If you want to make a track or album available for streaming from lala.com, you can buy it as a web song or buy a group of tracks as a web album. After adding a web song to your collection, you can play the track back (but not download it) through a Flash player at the top of the Lala browsing/shopping page. A web song costs 10 cents, an album is discounted to 60 or 80 cents. Signing in to your Lala account (it costs nothing) makes your entire collection available from any browser.

And then there’s Lala’s killer feature, one that I’m sure has executives at the RIAA popping Rolaids whenever they think about it. The Lala Music Mover works as a download helper, but it also moves music the other direction. You tell it where your existing music collection is stored, and the utility compares it with the “licensed catalog” on Lala. Tracks that match are added to your library and available for play from any computer; tracks for which it can’t find a match are uploaded to Lala.com, where they are available for streaming playback from your account.

Given the level of competition, any music fan has to wonder whether Lala can survive in the long term. I hope they do. At the very least, I hope some of the big competitors can start to think as creatively as this upstart.

Page 3: Rhapsody and Zune -->

 

Rhapsody (RealNetworks)

Price: Downloads comparable to iTunes pricing; Rhapsody Unlimited, $13/month; Rhapsody To Go, $15/month

Who it’s best for: Longtime Rhapsody fans who don’t mind the quirky software or who want easy access to music over the web, especially using something other than Windows

Verdict: The old-timer of music services is showing its age and doesn’t have much to tempt new fans. But it still has a huge selection of tunes from major and minor labels, and if you have a PlaysForSure device or you want the ability to play subscription tunes in a browser via Rhapsody Online, it’s a perfectly good option.

Zune Marketplace (Microsoft)

Price: Downloads comparable to iTunes pricing; Zune Pass subscription service, $15/month

Who it’s best for: Anyone who likes the all-you-can-eat music plan concept and the nonconformist appeal of toting an anti-hip Zune device

Verdict: The Zune Marketplace has a superb selection at prices that are typically comparable to iTMS; the $15 a month subscription deal includes 10 song credits per month, which makes it a much better deal than Rhapsody.

When RealNetworks and Microsoft have tried to compete with Apple as a straight download service, the results haven’t been pretty. That’s why both companies have made subscription-based all-you-can-download services the heart of their business. Both companies have access to impressively large music collections, but their offerings differ dramatically.

Rhapsody’s subscription service comes in two flavors: for $13 a month the Rhapsody Unlimited service lets you download DRM-protected tracks on up to three PCs for playback using the Rhapsody Player. For an extra $2 a month, you can buy the rights to sync those tunes with up to three compatible portable devices, like the Sansa Fuze or the Ibiza. Rhapsody subscription accounts also work with TiVo DVRs, Sonos multi-room audio systems, and Logitech Squeezebox players, among other home audio devices. If you choose not to sign up for a Rhapsody subscription, you can still preview up to 25 tracks a month in full.

One advantage of the Rhapsody subscription model is that it doesn’t require you to install the Rhapsody software to access your collection or listen to new tunes. You can sign in to your Rhapsody account using a web browser on Windows XP, Windows Vista, Mac OS X, or most mainstream Linux distros and fire up a web-based player that works just great. (But forget about Windows 7 for now. The Rhapsody software works fine but I was greeted with an “incompatible OS” error message when I tried playback in a browser.)

I never signed up for a Rhapsody account, but I have one now thanks to Yahoo’s decision to sell its subscription-based music service to RealNetworks last year. That meant my ultra-cheap two-year Yahoo Music subscription plan (less than $5 a month, paid for in advance in July 2007) became a Rhapsody To Go subscription. I’m pretty sure I won’t renew it when it expires in July.

Rhapsody’s biggest competitor is Microsoft’s Zune, which charges a similar monthly fee for its Zune Pass subscription. The big difference? That $15 monthly charge includes 10 credits good for downloading an unrestricted, high-bitrate MP3 track from the large Zune selection. Assuming you can find 10 tracks to download per month (and if you can’t you shouldn’t be a subscriber), that brings the effective cost of the all-you-can-eat portion down to about 5 bucks a month.

The end-to-end Zune experience is pretty slick as well, as I noted last November in a hands-on review. No long-term commitment is required, which means you can up for a month, listen to as many albums as you want, in full, during that month, and then cancel. It would almost be worth the $15 for unlimited music at a single party. And the Zune service offers one feature that its big corporate rivals don’t: You can download previously purchased tracks again. Your Zune account keeps a history of purchases and subscription downloads, and you can restore the entire collection to any PC where you sign in using the Zune software. (But you should keep good backups anyway.)

Download prices on the Zune Marketplace are no bargain, and Microsoft complicates matters by forcing you to buy Microsoft Points (800 points for $10) that can then be used for purchases. One album on my list wasn’t available at the Zune Marketplace, and two of the remaining six were, shockingly, more expensive than the same titles on iTMS.

Of course, the Zune world is Microsoft-centric. You must install the Windows-only Zune software to play Zune Pass tracks or to download from the Zune Marketplace. You can’t play subscription tunes from a web browser, and you can only sync music with a Zune player. So if you use Linux or you’re wedded to your iPod or iPhone, the Zune system has little to offer. But if you’re a Windows user willing to play within Microsoft’s bounds, the Zune Pass is a great deal.

Page 4: eMusic and Amie Street -->

 

eMusic

Price: Available in a dizzying range of plans that offer a fixed number of downloads for monthly fees ranging from $6 (10 downloads) to $25 (100 downloads)

Who it’s best for: Music fans who love offbeat artists and are willing to pore through eMusic’s vast archive of indie labels to unearth its many treasures

Verdict: If you’re looking for the latest from Coldplay or Lil Wayne, forget about this service. But if your tastes run to independent artists and you’re disciplined enough to use all your monthly downloads, eMusic’s costs per album are shockingly low.

Amie Street 

Price:An odd pricing structure that starts at free for tracks by unknown artists and then rises to iTunes levels (a maximum of 98 cents per track) based on demand

Who it’s best for: Bargain hunters with a strong independent streak and the patience to sift through page after page of obscure recordings to find the good stuff

Verdict: Amie Street is a lot like eMusic. Its selection, limited to independent labels, includes plenty of good stuff if you’re willing to look hard enough. With no monthly fee, you can browse and buy only what you want.

The two services on this page are hard to categorize. Where iTunes and Zune and Rhapsody pride themselves on stocking most new and catalog releases from the giant RIAA-affiliated labels, eMusic and Amie Street take the opposite approach. The selections at both services include almost nothing from the Billboard charts and are instead stocked with new and old releases from independent labels.

Back in my college days, I haunted local indie record shops and amassed a huge collection of vinyl LPs. I get that same feeling from eMusic, where I’ve been a satisfied customer since 2002. eMusic continues to honor the plan I signed up for way back then, which lets me download 90 tracks per month for an annual fee that works out to $16 per month. I never have trouble using up my monthly downloads, but it’s also a bit of a treasure hunt each month, poring through the new releases and my list of albums I’ve saved for later.

Of the seven albums on my shopping list, eMusic had only three available. Figuring out how much each one cost was a bit of a challenge, because of the many pricing plans. For the chart that accompanies this post, I calculated the cost using the eMusic Basic plan (30 tracks a month for $12, or 40 cents each) and the eMusic Premium plan (75 tracks per month for $20, or 27 cents per track). On average, the eMusic albums cost between 37% and 57% less than the same titles on iTunes. That makes all the poking around and exploring worth it.

The eMusic interface is slick and doesn’t allow full-track previews, only 30-second samples. But it does keep a record of every album you’ve ever downloaded, and if you ever lose a track you can download it again for free. I’ve used that feature for another benefit as well. Over the years, eMusic has upgraded the quality of its tracks, just as iTunes has with its iTunes Plus service. The difference? iTMS charges $3 per album for the upgrade, and eMusic charges nothing.

Amie Street has much in common with eMusic, including a catalog that overlaps substantially. The big difference is the way Amie Street charges for the music it stocks. Every track starts out free and then rises, based on demand, to a maximum of 98 cents per track. In practice, that artist-friendly policy didn’t pay dividends for my shopping list. At Amie Street I found only two of the albums on my shopping list. One was a compilation that cost a penny less than the same title at iTMS (and $3 to $6 more than Amazon MP3 and Zune). The other was a live album that was a deal compared to iTMS but cost more than the same title on Lala.

At the end of my evaluation, I couldn’t really figure out what Amie Street wanted to be. The clean web-based interface doesn’t make it easy to find the good stuff, and the pricing is downright baffling. I’ll stick with eMusic, thanks.

Page 5: Wrapping up -->

 

Apple’s monopoly is a tough one to crack, and the company makes it so easy to buy stuff through iTunes (at prices that are higher than most of their competitors) that it’s hard for a competitor to get a toehold. But after looking closely at the competition, I can’t imagine why anyone would buy from the iTunes Music Store when there are so many alternatives that are less expensive and more interesting. Here, in order, are the services I’m sticking with for the near future:

Lala I really love the innovation this little company is showing. I also love their low prices, especially the nickel-a-track charge for a web album. I’ve uploaded a few hundred tracks from my personal music collection to this service to go with the web albums I’ve paid for. On some upcoming business trips, I’m planning to play tunes from this collection in my hotel room instead of watching TV. My only real concern is that this little company won’t survive the fierce competition from Apple and others.

eMusic Every month, when my eMusic downloads reset, I feel like it’s Christmas Day. The site underwent a major redesign last year that made it much faster and more usable. With its off-the-beaten-track assortment of artists and albums, I couldn’t live on a diet of music from this service alone. But as a supplement to a more traditional download service, it’s one of the best bargains you can find.

Amazon MP3 If I can’t find it elsewhere, I’m always confident that Amazon will have it. In fact, Amazon’s pricing is flexible enough that I usually check there before buying elsewhere, just to see if the title is on special this week. While fact-checking this post, in fact, I discovered that Amazon was selling one title on CD for less than what it charged for an MP3 download. And the MP3 Deal of the Day is often irresistible and keeps me coming back.

Zune Pass I’m still getting my money’s worth out of the Zune Pass subscription service, but with other tempting options like Lala I might end up using it less. I’ll be paying close attention to how much I use it for the next few months and might end up dropping it or at least suspending it for a month or two if the value doesn’t seem to be there.

Rhapsody My subscription runs out in July, and I won’t be renewing it unless I get to keep the $6-a-month price tag I’ve paid for the past two years. Something tells me that offer won’t be forthcoming.

Amie Street I’ll keep an eye on this one to see whether they show signs of building an identity, but I doubt whether they’ll get any of my money anytime soon.

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