Alternatives to iTunes: how 5 rival music services match up

Alternatives to iTunes: how 5 rival music services match up

Summary: How well do the current crop of online music services stack up against the iTunes Store? I took a close look recently at five rivals and compared them to iTunes on the basis of price, ease of use, and selection. What's changed since last year? I've got the details.

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How well do the current crop of online music services stack up against the iTunes Store?

When I did my inaugural round-up of iTunes alternative last year, I was looking for ways to avoid the high price of iTunes, and I succeeded. I found six rivals that offered significant savings—at least 10% and potentially much more. My criteria included services aimed at music lovers who want the option to buy music by the track or by the album. Several of the alternative services included interesting differentiating features, with the biggest being the all-you-can-listen-to subscription model.

So what's new? When I took a closer look recently at five of those six services (including a fresh look at iTunes itself), I found that not much has changed from last year—except the owners. Last December, Apple acquired Lala, my favorite from last year. As I noted earlier this week, Lala's innovation has ground to a halt. Apple is no doubt working feverishly on incorporating Lala's cloud-friendly features into the next generation of the iTunes Store. But for now, you'd be hard-pressed to spot any changes in the iTunes music store.

I looked at three main factors: price, selection, and ease of use. To make price comparisons, I created a basket of 10 rock, folk, country, and classical albums, six recent releases and four back catalog choices from the previous century.

On price, iTunes was once again the most expensive, with the highest price for the collection. See the chart at right for details; the asterisk in the Cost column indicates that two of the five alternative services didn't offer the entire selection of albums—Zune Marketplace was missing two and eMusic had only six of the ten albums on my list. To figure the total price tag for those two services. I calculated the cost of the missing albums using the prices from the iTunes store. Amazon MP3 and Lala offered significant savings over iTunes, with total savings of 11% and 20%, respectively. Rhapsody offered only trivial savings over Apple's store, and the Zune prices were all over the map, with three albums costing more than their iTunes rivals.

There is no question that iTunes has the biggest selection of all the services. According to a January 2010 report from eMarketer, the iTunes Store has roughly 11 million tracks, followed by Amazon at 10 million and Lala at 8 million; Rhapsody, eMusic, and the Zune Marketplace have 6 million tracks to choose from—not the same ones. I was not at all surprised to find some recent releases missing at eMusic; I was surprised, however, that the new release from She & Him, "Volume Two," was unavailable from Zune.

When it comes to ease of use, it's logical to assume that the dedicated iTunes and Zune apps, which integrate an online store with playback, library management, and sync functions, are the best choice. If you own either of those devices and don't buy much music in a typical year, that's probably a reasonable decision. But Amazon, Lala, and eMusic all include lightweight downloader apps that are specifically designed to manage music properly and even add it automatically to the iTunes or Windows libraries. I found on both Windows PCs and Macs that I didn't have to jump through any hoops to get downloaded music into either location. It just worked.

I left a few services out of this round-up. Amie Street was on last year's list, but its selection is too limited (a sort of eMusic Lite) for me to include it this year. Likewise, after testing Napster (which was purchased by Best Buy last year) I chose not to include it; I found its latest incarnation as frustrating as ever to use. I also left out Walmart MP3, which has low prices but a very weak selection. 7Digital, which is based in the UK and only recently launched in the United States, is on my list for the next update in this series.

For a more detailed look at the rival music services, see the next page.

Next page: iTunes rivals in detail -->

 

<--Previous page

Among the competitors, here's an executive summary of each of the five digital-media services I looked at, in alphabetical order (I left out AmieStreet, which was in last year's roundup):

Amazon MP3

As was the case last year, there's a lot to like at Amazon. Its MP3 store has a huge selection (10 million tracks, versus 11 million at iTunes)  and it consistently has lower prices than the iTunes Store or Microsoft's Zune Marketplace. It offers regular specials, including an MP3 Daily Deal and bargain bins filled with categorized lists of albums for $5. The downloader utility works very well with iTunes and Windows music libraries. If you're a price-conscious music lover, this should really be your main stop. 

eMusic

Amazingly, this little music service is still alive and kicking after nearly 12 years, outlasting high-profile competitors like MSN Music and Yahoo Music. Its selection got a significant boost in June last year when the company struck a deal with the Sony-affiliated labels to sell albums in its back catalog (two years old or older), and it got another influx of titles early this year thanks to a similar deal with Warner Music. All of the tracks available for download from eMusic are in MP3 format, with no DRM, and the downloader utility lets you choose where you want the tunes to go.

The business model is also unlike any other service: you pay a monthly or annual subscription fee that gives you a specific number of credits for use each month. One credit equals the right to download one track, with most albums being capped at a "cost" of 12 credits regardless of how many tracks they contain. As a result, the average cost of an album from eMusic is around $5. If you show up looking for a specific album, especially one that's relatively new, you'll probably be disappointed in eMusic. But if you like a wide range of music and are happy with the idea of picking up four or five surprises each month, it's awesome.

Lala You can still go to lala.com and do most of what you could do last year at this time, with the noteworthy exception of uploading tracks from your own music collection. You can still match tracks in your collection to the Lala catalog, or pay 10 cents a track for streaming rights, and then listen to your virtual collection from any web browser by logging on with your free user account. And while you're logged on you can listen, once (and only once) to any album that's not in your collection. Lala was a low-priced alternative to Apple last year, with average prices roughly 26% lower than iTunes. Since Apple acquired the company, those prices have gone up. I looked at the receipts for the 17 albums I purchased from Lala over the past year and found that five of them had gone up in price. Beta testers report that Lala's iPhone app works well, but Apple has no comment on when or if it will be released to the public

Rhapsody

I didn't expect this graybeard to be around this year, and in one respect I was right. The old Rhapsody, co-owned by Real Networks and Viacom, is dead. The former owners announced plans to spin off the Rhapsody service into its own company earlier this year and completed the transition less than two weeks ago. It's still too early to tell how the new Rhapsody will do. The new owners kept the existing subscription model but lowered the price to a flat $10 per month (which includes the option to sync to one device from a so-so selection of portable players, including the entire Sandisk line). There's an interesting selection of consumer electronics and PC products that can directly tap into a Rhapsody subscription. Rhapsody appears to be staking its future on mobile subscribers. It has iPhone and Android apps now and promises upgrades to both that will allow members to download any track from the Rhapsody catalog to a phone even when you're offline. That feature is worth waiting for.

Zune Marketplace

Microsoft's Zune software (Windows only) is gorgeous and easy to use—and it works even if you don't have a Zune player. For purchases, its prices are about as high as those at iTunes, with few discounts. To add unnecessary confusion, purchases are made in Microsoft Points, which you have to purchase in $5 blocks. The real claim to fame for this service is the Zune Pass subscription service. For $15 a month, a Zune Pass allows you to listen to any track in the catalog, synchronize it on up to three Zune devices, and keep 10. Most tracks are now in MP3 format. Microsoft has aggressive expansion plans for the Zune Marketplace, including Windows Phones. I'm willing to bet that it's easily accessible from Windows 8 as well.

Topics: Hardware, Apple, Microsoft, Mobility

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125 comments
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  • Make mine CDs from Amazon.com

    My music collection consists of CDs purchased from Amazon.com - superior lossless sound quality and no DRM, at a reasonable price. And when your hard drive crashes, your music collection doesn't disappear. (grin)

    When you buy an entire album, you often find lesser known gems that single-song buyers overlook.
    Tom12Tom
    • Me too

      I've actually been buying more CDs than digital in the past year. With a subscription service, I get the best of both worlds. I can sample an album for a while to decide whether it's worth buying, and if I decide to purchase I can continue listening while I wait for it to arrive in the mail.
      Ed Bott
      • And the beauty is I can rip my CDs into iTunes and put it on iPod & iPhone.

        No extra cost involved~
        The Danger is Microsoft
        • You can rip CDs...

          ...using any tool and play them back using any tool on any device, as long as your format of choice is supported.

          And you can re-rip if something happens to your digital copy.
          Ed Bott
          • Amazon Yes

            Same here. I prefer CDs, unless I'm only after one or two songs, then I buy and DL from Amazon. No need for iTunes.
            Vokar
          • Notes

            I agree. And I *still* appreciate having the liner notes...ERR CD booklet.
            dprozzo
        • Huh - most if not all tools do that... the difference

          in my book is most tools work with all Media players EXCEPT the old Prop iPod and all its variations. I find that extremely annoying, and iTunes is crap (my opinion), and the only reason I have it is for my Wife and Son's iTouch's. I would use something else in a heartbeat.
          ItsTheBottomLine
        • Same thing I do with my Zune

          CD's: buy once, there forever!
          John Zern
          • After the PlaysForSure debacle

            I wouldn't touch Zune with a 10 foot pole.
            ubiquitous one
          • Zune HD seems pretty cool

            I have to admit haven't seen one, but reviews have been glowing for it, so I'd expect it to be an awesome product.

            OTOH My son just bought a cheap chinese gamestation/camera/videoCamera/videoPlayer/MP3player/radio with TV output, and it is incredibly good. I have no idea what OS it runs, but it's awesome. It emulates lots of other gamestations, like that small US linux one did (whatever that was called). Ripped DVD transcoded (it comes with very efficient transcoder) MP4 movies on it take 200meg and look near to DVD quality on the TV.

            It's scary how good the chinese brand units are these days. But in many ways we shouldn't be surprised since the Zunes, iPods, Vaios etc of the world are all made in china!
            stevey_d
          • Well, then only buy unlocked music...

            Zune Marketplace also sells them.

            And strictly speaking, this is an issue with *any* DRM system, even Apple's.
            TheWerewolf
          • PlaysForSure was a Micro$oft thing...

            ...that wasn't honored by Micro$oft's own Zune marketplace. This led to buyers being ripped-off and having to buy their music twice.

            Shameful. Utterly shameful. :(
            ubiquitous one
          • Wrong

            Sigh. No one who purchased music protected with WMA DRM in the PlaysForSure format had to buy it twice. In fact, that music still play today, on the original devices and in Windows Media Player in Windows 7, Vista, and XP.

            The only issue was that someone who had DRM-protected music could not transfer it to a device that uses a different form of DRM, such as iPod or a Zune. There are workarounds for that, and they were widely published.

            But I repeat, no one had to purchase any music a second time. No one.
            Ed Bott
          • The only issue, Ed?

            [i]The only issue was that someone who had DRM-protected music could not transfer it to a device that uses a different form of DRM, such as iPod or a Zune. There are workarounds for that, and they were widely published.[/i]

            Is not the Zune a Micro$oft device?

            Was not PlayForSure a Micro$oft certification for portable device (like for example, the Zune) and online music services?

            One would assume that one could transfer music between using two Micro$oft ecosystems, but M$ decided to change it's own rules and be sleazy about it, with the customer getting the short end of the stick.

            There goes the public assuming anything about Micro$oft.
            ubiquitous one
      • but then you could buy digitally, and burn a CD

        just depends how long you want to wait. If you _have_ to listen to it tonight, download (and burn if you really want a physical media copy), otherwise wait a day or two to get it in the mail.
        Resale value of CDs is impossibly low these days, so that doesn't really impact the choice any more.
        stevey_d
        • Resale

          If you resell a CD, you agree to erase any digital copies you made, right?
          Ed Bott
          • Definitely - people should

            The resale value of most CDs is relatively little in any case. Personally I buy MP3 downloads, but I don't burn then to CDs, as I've gone totally digital. Mobile phones, waterproof MP3 players for swimming with music, computers and car audio. All MP3. The lack of DRM on MP3s makes it easy for me to move (my legally purchased MP3) between my equipment.

            For those that use music without buying it. You're cheap sheisters, we're the true fans, and remember, those that pay the piper call the tune.
            stevey_d
      • RE: Alternatives to iTunes: how 5 rival music services match up

        @Ed Bott: LaLa is gone now, Ed. I found out about LaLa thru your Blog just about a couple of months ago, and thank you for that. I loved LaLa! We need something just like LaLa right away! Suggestions in the meantime? I like the "virtual jukebox" business model.<br><br>Now about your post: "I've actually been buying more CDs than digital in the past year. With a subscription service, I get the best of both worlds. I can sample an album for a while to decide whether it's worth buying, and if I decide to purchase I can continue listening while I wait for it to arrive in the mail." <br>This is also very appealing to me. Myself, being an independent "indie" artist, there will always be people that want something "tangible" to show for the money they spent on music. I joke with friends about how the proper way to announce that your band has new recorded material; is it, "we just recorded a new album" (nobody records to records anymore, not really, but you'll see a return to that in the "indie" scene). Do you say, "we just recorded a new CD"; no, because hardly anyone buys CD's anymore (I do, especially from touring bands & friends' bands). Next time we record some new material, I'm gonna put it on cheap little thumb drives and throw them out to the crowds. "Hey, we just were in the studio laying down some tracks for our upcoming memory chip release (or, insert terminology here).<br><br>Thanks for keeping me up-to-date on the latest happenings in the digital music world!<br> Rudy
        Rudy6897
    • Me too

      Funny thing:
      As soon as I bought my first iPod, I found that I was buying more
      CD's. The reason: I listen to music a lot more than I did before.
      No compression. No DRM. Not tied to any format.
      I rip them in Apple Lossless format. Full CD quality. Much better
      than AAC and worlds better than MP3. Only real downside is the storage
      (570 -plus tracks per 10GB, just under 5800 tracks in 100 GB). But
      storage is cheap, and the sound quality is worth it.
      jwseybold
      • Really?

        The evidence demonstrates that you would not be able to tell ANY difference between lossless and a reasonable bitrate mp3 (say, 192) if you took part in a blind test.

        But, hey, it's your choice to use the format you want. All I'd suggest is that you choose lossless for reasons other than sonic quality.
        Dorkyman