How to beat the music download blues

Peter Hoey Music may be the universal language, but when technology gets involved, the words sometimes flow less freely.

Deciphering the alphabet soup of digital music file formats -- including MP3, WMA, and AAC -- is just the beginning. No single portable audio player or site supports every file type, and it's not always clear which ones they do support. To add to the confusion, music sites have different rules for burning CDs, copying tracks onto multiple devices, and performing other tasks. So before you start downloading your favorite Stones album, you need to figure out which formats will work with the players you plan to use -- and which sites and services will let you play your digital music the way you want to.

This summer, in MGM vs. Grokster, the Supreme Court took a clear position against file sharing, so it's essential to make sure that you're listening legally.

Here's some advice to help you pick up your favorite tunes online without hassles.

ABCs and MP3s

It helps to realize that in the digital music world, you can take one of three distinct paths: Apple's, Microsoft's, or the independent route. Once you get started on one path, it can be difficult (and expensive) to switch to another.

In music, unlike in computing, the well-traveled road is Apple's. IPods are by far the most popular audio players, and sales at the ITunes Music Store (half a billion songs and counting) dwarf those at any other music download site -- for good reason. The IPod looks great and has a clear, efficient interface. ITunes was the first music store to simplify online music purchasing. And the ITunes desktop music player software makes putting your purchases on your IPod a snap.

But you pay a price for following the Apple route. Since the ITunes store sells copy-protected tracks in the AAC (Advanced Audio Coding, or MP4) format, the IPod is your only choice in a portable player; no others can play AAC files with Apple's type of copy protection.

Now, being stuck with an IPod isn't the worst of fates, but it can be limiting, primarily because IPods won't play Microsoft's WMA file format. That means you won't be able to play tracks you buy from most other online music stores. And if you subscribe to a music service such as Rhapsody, you won't be able to transfer any of that subscription music from your PC to your portable player.

So you're stuck with the policies of the ITunes Music Store ( outlined here). Many other online vendors sell tracks recorded at higher bit rates than those offered at ITunes -- and higher bit rates generally translate into better sound quality. Downloaded tracks from any music store come with restrictions governing how many times you can copy them, how many machines you can play them on, and other factors. And those rules can change radically. How would you react if, after you'd bought an IPod and hundreds of dollars' worth of ITunes music, Apple changed its license restrictions in a way you didn't like? Would you be willing to start over again with a different format?

If you go down Microsoft's music path, you have many more choices. WMA files are sold at most online stores other than Apple's, including MSN Music, Musicmatch, and Napster. If you don't like the licensing rules at one store, you can take your business elsewhere. And WMA files play on most portable players not named IPod, including models from Creative, Dell, HP, IRiver, and Rio.

The downside to throwing your lot in with WMA is feeling a bit like an outcast. The fact that new audio accessories like portable speakers and FM transmitters tend to be bright white and have the letters p-o-d in their names is no coincidence. It's an IPod world; if you're carrying a Creative Zen, you're just living in it.

If you're not interested in joining either camp, you can stick with the MP3 format, which plays on virtually any portable player, on any computer, and with any music software. Unfortunately, MP3 files equivalent in quality to AAC and WMA files must be bigger, meaning that fewer will fit on your portable player.

With the exception of EMusic.com, few online stores sell music in MP3 format, but with some work you can convert AAC or WMA files to MP3s. You burn the original file to a CD and then you rip that CD into an MP3. It's tedious and you do lose some sound quality along the way, but you end up with a file that's free of the limitations of digital rights management.

Playing by the rules

Your choice of music store won't make much difference in what you pay. Most stores charge around $1 for each track, and about $10 for an album. But each vendor has its own rules. Here are some questions to consider when buying.

Can you copy the music you purchase onto multiple players or computers?

Suppose you want to copy the latest Coldplay album onto your laptop or office computer. Most sites let you do this, but within limits: For example, ITunes lets you authorize five additional systems to access your library; Napster gives you an allowance of three. Some sites require you to copy and restore license files to each additional computer you plan to use.

Don't forget to deauthorize systems before you retire them or upgrade the motherboard. Each site should provide instructions on how to do this.

Can you burn unlimited copies of your purchased music to CD?

Once you've purchased a legal copy of a music file, most services let you make as many copies on CD as you want, but it's a good idea to check for restrictions. Wal-Mart's music store, for example, limits you to ten burns to CD.

Are there limits on what you can do with your playlists?

Creating personal playlists of your favorite tunes is easy with digital music. But some sites place limits on playlists -- for example, Musicmatch permits you to burn the same playlist no more than seven times.

What if your hard drive goes south?

Many sites require you to repurchase any lost music that you wish to replace, regardless of the details. Other sites may be able to supply you with a restored copy of your library. Either way, it's best to back up your collection regularly onto CD.

Do all of these rules make buying music online sound too much of a hassle?

Then consider renting your tunes. For a subscription fee of around $10 a month, streaming services such as those offered by Rhapsody and by Napster let you listen to unlimited hours of music on demand. For an extra $5 a month, you can copy music files to a limited number of portable players and play the songs for as long as you pay your subscription -- though you won't be able to burn the music to CD.

All these rules are enough to make you yearn for the simpler days of vinyl. But if you do a little homework, the Web can lead to a whole new world of musical discoveries. So load up your browser, crank up the volume, and enjoy the music.

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