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

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

Summary: 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 -->


Topics: Amazon, Apple, Browser, Microsoft, Operating Systems, PCs, Windows

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  • Download music

    I can't see why anyone would want to download poor quality mp3 files. I purchase all my music on CD. I import into iTunes using Apple lossless format and at the moment my average price per track is about 50p.
    • Effort vs Reward

      Something I base my life on.

      I'm not that picky about the quality of my music in the first place.
      Don't even know if I listened to one of my standard iTunes downloads
      and one of yours if I'd even notice anything different.

      Second even if I did I'd still have to measure the effect that difference
      has vs the effort it takes too achieve it.

      Take purchasing a CD. Most of the songs on the CD were probably
      not to my liking. Then there is the storage of the CD after purchase.
      Then there is the whole routine you use to get your music. Cost of the
      CD etc. Time is money after all...:P

      Already I see myself bothered. Now unless that difference in music
      quality is so large that when I hear a song that you recorded and the
      clouds part, angels sing type thing its just not worth it....

      Pagan jim
      James Quinn
      • I really don't like DRM...

        So I buy new or used CDs. They are more or less permanent archives of the music, are very high fidelity, and are easy to store. If I want to use an MP3 player of some kind (including iPods) I can do so. Much more flexible.
        • Granted to you the effort is worth the reward....

          To me not so much. Still I think DRM is becoming less and less an issue
          on iTunes.

          Pagan jim
          James Quinn
        • DRM

          Most of the record companies have now released Apple of the obligation
          to employ DRM via the iTunes store. Most tracks there are now Plus
          tracks meaning that they have no DRM at all and are encoded in a very
          high quality 256kbs aac (mp4) format.

          Still at only .99/track, it's the best download music deal going.
          • Cal me

            When the song(s) reach their real market value: 25 cents/Track
          • Do you even know what "real market value" even means?

            From looking at your posting history, it is clear you have no idea. If the
            real market value was only $0.25/track there would be no one buying
            any music. Since that is far from the truth, the real market value must be substantially higher than $0.25/track.
          • Real market value - and the knowledge of it

            The price of anything is what someone wn?nts to pay for it at any given time. There is no such thing as real market value. Eg. What do you pay for todays paper? What do you pay for yesterdays? For your own convenience please feel free to add products to the above statement - and try if it works for - boats, concert tickets, cars, bread, can of beans, wine, houses.
          • real market value is determined by the market :)

            Real market value is whatever the price that is reached when a purchase is made of course. 0.25 per song would sell a lot more music, but that can't be a real market value at this point since no music companies are willing to sell for that price.
      • Depends

        on how important culture is to you.
        For me it's very important and I have enough sensitive ears and mind to
        tell which is crap and which I want to keep.

        To me most of today's music is destroyed by exaggerated amplification,
        but I'm irregularly rewarded by my relentless searching.

        I think that Apple's competitors still don't get it, i.e. they simply don't
        understand consumers.
      • Digitally Remastered

        A lot of the New Zealand 'Dunedin sound' music I listened to in the 80's is now available 'Digitally Remastered'. Pity it was originally recorded on ordinary cassette tapes in someones living room. But the traffic passing on the street outside is clearer :-)
      • Jim, I was going to reply to you in another blog...

        but first just let me say that the Zune subscription is quite nice. It's only 10 bucks a month for all the music you can listen to. The service is 15.00 but you get to keep TEN tracks every month, so it's a great deal for many music lovers. 5.00 bucks for unlimited listening pleasure to any song plus 10 selections. <br>
        Ownership is great and everything but you use OS X on a license basis and don't seem to mind.
        Point is most music people buy is a passing fad, or grows old quickly. There is not enough music in the world to say you will continue to listen to every track you buy, that each one is so timeless and classic, and continue to keep buying music that you'll listen to in addition continually, or at all after some time. Most people have Gigabytes full of songs they'll never listen to again, in fact many people I know anyway listen to new purchases for a month and then move on.
        Of course there are tracks you are going to go back and listen to occasionally, all i'm saying is there are probably twice as many you won't, life doesn't offer most of us that much time.
        With the subscription you get the best of both worlds. You can listen to your fave old track anytime you want even if you didn't buy it, yet you get to pick 10 of your most favorite tracks (many of which come from that ability to listen to any new song or old you want with your subscription to determine, hey I want this one if I decide to stop my subscription.
        So you actually own 120 songs a year and all of the listening to new stuff and every genre imaginable in between. Only the most wealthy of people could enjoy that luxury buying every track. <br>
        I subscribe to XM/sirius as well cause I love to listen to stuff spontaneously, not having to buy something which i can only listen to a snippett of and have to decide if I might like it. I love to laugh and listen to the 24 hour comedy stations a lot while driving. In the morning on the way to work, a good laugh is priceless. I love MLB as well, so every summer evening there are games from coast to coast.
        I love taking a trip on a Saturday, there are games on from around 1:35 to around 1:00am or later when the west coast games wrap up here in EDT. <br>
        Anyway, you showed up in some blog and started in on how the iPod made it on it's own, word of mouth you said and Windows rode the coattails of IBM for the most part and somehow "wiped out" everyone but Apple. <br>
        Your analogy when like this: "If you went to a movie that had a huge budget and the most popular stars, but it was a bomb, it will sell huge the first weekend, but then "word of mouth" would create slumping ticket sales. <br>
        I agree with you on that one. <br>
        But you forgot to apply your logic to Windows.
        If as you said IBM ruled the business world, and since MS didn't really start taking off until the split with IBM, not because "of" IBM in 91, why didn't OS/2, PC-DOS and IBM hardware naturally continue to rule the business world as you claimed they did?? <br>
        And if windows was not a great product, then why did everyone keep coming back after the "premiere"? <br> IBM, the king, was still there with it's full compliment of hardware and OSes for them continue using, and there was Apple to turn to, had the premiere been a bomb for those who switched from IBM. Must have been a blockbuster because they left IBM in hoardes at that point. Who create that, IBM? Nope, MS was smart and created a more open system with partners that didn't lock people into heavily proprietary protocols like Apple and IBM were doing. Appletalk and Microchannel come to mind.<br>
        MS made it on their own, read the history. They made MS DOS and OEM hardware more popular than IBM PCs and it's own PC-DOS and OS/2. <br>
        You are saying IBM made that happen? And somehow your analogy doesn't apply to MS?
        If you have any appreciation for history, and the truth, you'll see that MS literally beat out the King, not ushered in by the king proclaiming to the world to switch from IBM and use MS and the OEM products instead.
        So you were completely wrong in your assertion about getting a boost from IBM, but rather MS beat the king at it's own game and created it's own success with it's own OS and it's own partners on it's own terms. IBM did nothing to create that, in fact they've been trying to get back at MS for being the David to their Goliath, ever since.
        Thanks for your patience.
    • Pagan Jim has the right idea.

      I would also add that CDs include a huge amount of unnecessary packaging, and I rarely have time to sift through the local music store's collection. With the high bitrates of today's downloads, there's really no audible difference between "lossless" and Amazon or eMusic downloads. And they're convenient, cheap and leave me with no garbage tracks or garbage to throw away.
      • Hardware is important.

        Most of the headphones people use to
        listen to music are pretty crappy. So you limit what you hear
        when you use them. So so called 'lossless' formats wil sound
        the same as CDs. Use decent playback equipment and the difference
        will be very obvious.
        • Understood, but...

          Yes, I do appreciate the difference, but think about what's involved.

          I listen on my commute (an hour and a half to NYC, each way), so music is not just a background thing for me at my desk.

          There's no way I will spend crazy money on bulky headphones, but I do use the Zune premium ones, which are great at noise canceling, and have decent response (but virtually no low-end). So, without the battery-powered monster headsets, I don't think there is really enough difference between FLAC, AAC and 320kbps mp3s (or even 256 kbps) to present a noticeable difference to my ear.

          So, returning to the subject at hand, Amazon mp3 and eMusic are excellent choices for me - cheap, high-quality, low-maintenance, universal format music. I just can't spend time ripping piles fo CDs to FLAC. But I appreciate that audiophiles feel this need.
          • Try Skullcandy or NuForce

            The NuForce NE-7M or Skullcandy Titan are high-quality headphones at $50 and don't require additional amplification. However, NuForce also has an inexpensive portable headphone amplifier that will make any headphones sound much better.
            glocks out
          • thanks for the suggestions! (NT)

        • BS

          This is more audiophile self-delusion.

          If you have the courage, test it. Have someone mix 256 AAC and lossless
          CD rips and burn them randomly to a CD. Have him give it to a second
          friend, without telling him what he did (double-blind), then have that
          friend give it to you. Put it in your high-end audio equipment and mark
          which tracks on the CD are from a lossless source and which are from a
          256k AAC source.

          You won't be able to.
      • The thing I find fascinating

        The thing I find most fascinating is that CDs were introduced in the early 80s... nearly 30 years ago. And no other popular format has been released that can match the quality of a CD. Even the new SD music cards with GBs of capacity don't even try to match the quality of a nearly 30 year old format.

        My personal method of keeping music is to purchase the CD and then rip it using dbPowerAmp into a lossless format (I was using WavPack but switched to WMAL recently). My philosophy is that if you have a master lossless copy you'll never lose quality if you ever have to re encode into the new format de jure.
        • There is a limit to what the ear can discern

          When you can convert from analogue to digital, there is a limit to what the human ear can discern. CDs use a sampling rate that is high enough to surpass the ability of people to notice the conversion to digital and back to analogue. There has been no change in nearly 30 years because no one could notice the difference.

          Of course, I'm just talking about the theory behind it. You can have improvements in hardware that perform the conversion, but the digital recordings are as good as they need to be. What they need to work on is better surround sound implementation to create a greater sense of "being there". While surround information is currently encoded into most CDs, that's one area that could use some real innovation.