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Friday follow-up: six online music services revisited

Last spring, I took a closer look at six online music services, comparing them to iTunes on the basis of price and selection. Since then, I’ve been keeping close track of all those services. Although it’s only been a few months, I thought it might be worth looking whether these iTunes alternatives can really make an impact on music purchases. As it turns out, those pennies can add up to hundreds of dollars in real savings.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Last spring, I took a closer look at six online music services, comparing them to iTunes on the basis of price and selection. (If you missed that post, you can read it here: 6 music services compared: who can bust the iTunes monopoly?)

Since then, I’ve been keeping close track of all those services. Although it’s only been a few months, I thought it might be worth recapping what’s changed since then (a lot, it turns out) and whether these iTunes alternatives can really make an impact on music purchases.

eMusic goes mainstream. The biggest change in recent months involves eMusic. Last month, the service announced a new partnership with all of the Sony labels (Arista, Columbia, Epic, among others). Where previously eMusic was strictly an indie alternative, now it offers access to recordings from major artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and The Clash. The change comes at a price, though: The monthly cost of an eMusic subscription is up substantially, to an average cost of 42-50 cents per track. At an average cost of about $5 per album, that’s still a bargain compared to other services, but longtime customers like me saw our monthly charge nearly triple.

My initial reaction to the eMusic changes was disappointment and the fleeting thought of canceling. After using the new service for the last month, though, I’ve changed my mind. Given the expanded catalog, I’ve found that I can fill a lot of holes in my collection at a very reasonable price, and it’s still a great deal for indie artists that are hard to find elsewhere. Ironically, the higher-priced eMusic might be a better overall deal for music fans willing to dip into older catalogs for overlooked gems.

iTunes is expensive. I’ve been faithfully checking the prices of every new album I’ve purchased since the beginning of the year at iTunes, Amazon MP3, and Lala.com. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve purchased roughly 30 albums at those sites, and in every case, without exception, the price difference over iTunes was substantial. Without exception, I was able to purchase albums for at least $2 less than iTunes every time, and I was able to locate the exact title I was looking for every time.

Even more significant in terms of monetary savings are the specials that Amazon and Lala.com offer. Both services regularly discount new releases substantially in the first week they’re available, which is why I was able to get new albums from Steve Earle, U2, and Green Day for $2,99, $3.99, and $4.99, respectively. They also discount selected older albums to $2.99 or less as part of daily specials. By contrast, I have never seen iTunes Music Store offer a one-time sale price on any title, old or new. I’d estimate that for those 30 albums alone, I paid about $120 less than if I had purchased them at the iTunes store. If I added in the savings from 70 or so albums I picked up at eMusic, my total bill would easily be $300 less than the equivalent tab at iTunes.

Subscription services are frustrating. I pay Microsoft $15 a month for an all-you-can-listen to Zune subscription. My Rhapsody subscription, which is paid annually, works out to about $12 a month. Both services give me the ability to synchronize subscription tracks with a portable player. When I’m traveling, I like to fill the player up with a few dozen albums from artists that I want to hear more from. The ability to listen to an unlimited number of tracks and albums has kept me from wasting money on albums that looked good on paper but disappointed in hearing. I've also found several albums that are keepers that I gladly paid for after a few listens.

The Zune monthly fee includes the right to download 10 tracks a month, which is useful but adds some hassle to the process. Ideally, to get the bast bang for the buck, you'll want to find an album that’s exactly 10 tracks that you would have paid $9.99 for (or $7.49 at Lala); for an album consisting of more than 10 tracks, you either have to cherry-pick which 10 tracks you want to download or pay extra to fill in the missing numbers. Those “free” tracks expire monthly as well, so you have to be vigilant to avoid losing them. (That’s happened once already to me. Ouch!)

All three of the services I continue to use regularly for music purchases—Amazon, eMusic, and Lala—include their own downloader utilities, which copy purchased tunes in the background and move them into either the iTunes or Windows Media library. It’s arguably easier to do it all from the iTunes window, but my experience suggests that a collection drawn from different sources requires no extra management tricks beyond installing those mini-downloaders.

When I wrote my original post, several commenters chided me for being fixated on saving pennies. As it turns out, those pennies add up: if you’re a music fan, the actual savings can be hundreds of dollars.

Your turn: Are you willing to pay extra for iTunes? Have you switched to any alternative services? Leave your comments in the Talkback section.

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