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.
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.
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