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 -->