Cheap hits: downloading music

The wait is over. You can finally access music online legally, locally and cheaply - but there is still a long way to go before the full potential of downloading music is realised.

A handful of Australia-based paid music download services recently launched, with the intention of bringing legal music downloads to your PC. Following the success of US-based offerings, many music download fans have been waiting patiently for local sites - but what's available is still a bit of a grab bag. If you like the latest chart releases and want great quality at an affordable price, then many of these sites will suit your needs. If you are looking to track down back-catalogue releases or a favourite artist from your youth, then you may have a hit-and-miss experience. Keep in mind that many of these sites are just starting out, and many have plans to add to their catalogues in the coming months.

The last five years have seen the growth of peer-to-peer file sharing. The spotlight fell particularly on the illegal music file-swapping service Napster and, after its demise, on new file-sharing services such as KaZaA. The popularity of the illegal music download services - even when they were taken to court by representatives of the major record labels - means the recording industry has finally considered using the Internet in its model for the distribution of music.

EMusic was among the first wave of such Web sites and it still offers downloads based on a monthly subscription fee, as does the relaunched Roxio-owned Napster. Recently, Apple's iTunes Music Store has popularised per-song paid downloads. These download services are available only in the US, however, and don't expect local launches from either company or other global giants such as Yahoo, AOL and HP.

Click here for a screen shot of Apple iTunes.

Sony has decided to go live in the US with 500,000 songs from all the major labels, plus expected promotions giving free music downloads with McDonald's burgers.

There is no doubt that the use of the Internet to distribute and sell music products is an important issue: reports are released every other day that discuss the Internet's impact on music sales. So, does the launch of new download services herald growth in this market? Market research and advisory firm Jupiter Research focuses on emerging technologies and the Internet, and it believes it's too early to speculate on the Australian market. Globally, Jupiter has forecast that legitimate music downloads will increase from 2 per cent of the overall US music market this year to 12 per cent in 2008. Interestingly, Jupiter also forecasts that online sales of CDs will still be higher than digital music downloads in 2008, counting for 14 per cent of the total market.

All the services we tested use the Microsoft technologies of Windows Media Player 9 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) digital audio files at either standard or high quality settings, citing WMA's superior Digital Rights Management (DRM) as the reason for its implementation. DRM helps the sites and music manufacturers control music piracy by restricting the number of times a song can be copied. Recently, Thompson, the French company that sells MP3 technology licences, announced a new version of the music encoding standard that includes the ability to limit the number of times a song can be duplicated onto CDs and MP3 players, essentially making it a DRM-tagged format.

Each of the download ser-vices that we looked at offers DRM licensing for copying a downloaded file at least three times. This will allow you to play the music on your PC, burn it to a CD, and copy the file to at least one hardware music player.

Why consider digital music downloads? Potentially, it provides the convenience of easily searching for and quickly finding music you want, without the need to hunt down the CD at a music shop - which is handy, in theory, if you want something that is out of stock, or now a back-catalogue item. The reality is that, just like shopping at the bricks and mortar store, what you are after isn't always on the shelf!

Some music lovers will prefer still to purchase music in the traditional packaging with inlays and artwork. Some artists, such as the UK's Radiohead, have decided that for artistic reasons its music will not be available for purchase on a per-track basis, although we found that some of their previous releases are available on the sites we visited.

Now, let's have a look at what each service provides to music aficionados.

BigPond Music

BigPond Music took the local industry by storm when it launched in mid-January and, arguably, had attracted the most attention at the time of writing. It offers an online catalogue of around 500,000 songs (we couldn't confirm how many of these were actually available for download) from all the major labels, plus a range of independents including Creative Vibes, Rubber Records, LOOP Recordings, Petrol Records and Elefant Traks.

Click here for a screen shot of the BigPnd music site.

At the time of writing, the service had slashed the price across all its tracks to 99 cents to encourage new users to its service in advance of ninemsn's launch.

A range of independent artists' tracks will remain at the 99c mark, although pricing normally is set at $1.49 per track for BigPond ISP customers and $1.89 for everyone else. Album prices on BigPond Music range from $15 for BigPond customers to $18.50 for others users.

BigPond's DRM licensing allows you to download a music file once and to copy it an unlimited number of times to up to two hardware music players that work with Windows Media Player 9. You can also burn the file onto a CD up to three times and download up to two replacement files at no cost if you run into problems.

Non-BigPond users can purchase online using a credit card. BigPond customers can opt to charge downloads to their Telstra phone bill or use a credit card.

BigPond Music states it is working with Australian artists such as INXS and Pete Murray, both of whom have made live material available for purchase exclusively via this service. That said... we searched for vintage INXS work including tracks from its Shabooh Shoobah album, and other Australian artists from the 1980s, and came up empty-handed. So, more work may be necessary.

www.bigpondmusic.com.au

Destra Music

The Destra Music service, which launched at the end of 2003, operates in a different manner than BigPond's service. Destra is a digital rights management company working on behalf of the record companies to convert their existing music content to DRM digital music files. This content is then made available through Destra's partner Web sites.

Click here for a screen shot of the Destra music site.

Partners, who offer identical download content on their respective Web sites, include Sanity, HMV, JB Hi-Fi (these three outlets combined account for around 50 per cent of Australian retail music sales), Dick Smith Power House and Destra's own MP3.com.au site.

At press time Destra had around 200,000 songs online with rights to an additional 350,000 and a live target of 500,000 by July. Searching the sites reveals that there is not a diverse range of artist material available. Some of the bands we looked for (who have released more than 10 CDs) were represented only by one of their 'successful' albums.

Recently, Destra undercut BigPond Music's price drop by offering any song to any user for 89c, and you can expect future promotions. As standard, recent release and more popular songs are $1.99 each (representing about half the available catalogue) and the remainder are priced at either $1.49 or $0.99.

Plans for the service include album pricing. There will also be a subscription system that will offer unlimited access to high quality music streams, as well as free download coupons for consumer goods such as crisps and soft drinks.

Destra's licensing allows you to burn a file to a CD three times and copy it an unlimited number of times to a portable device. Payment options include credit card and vouchers/gift certificates purchased from partner outlets. Partners, newsagents and petrol stations should be selling recharge cards by the time you read this.

www.destramusic.com.au

ninemsn

At the time of writing, this was the most recent download music site to launch - relaunch, in fact, because ninemsn's download service is a revamp of its existing service launched in 2001. Users navigating from the portal's home page will find ninemsn's music store under its Entertainment tab. In fact, there is not a lot of noise about the new service at ninemsn.com.au. When you get to the site, you'll see revamped, red pages with promotions for new albums, and special offers for free tickets to see artists including Prince and N.E.R.D, as well as sneak peeks from artists such as Eskimo Joe.

Click here for a screen shot of the ninmsn site.

Like most of the other sites, the store offers catalogues from BMG, Sony, EMI, Festival Mushroom, Universal and Warner. However, according to ninemsn, its exclusive part-nership with distributor OD2 brings with it the catalogues of over 100 independent labels. Around 300,000 songs were "anticipated to be available by the end of the year".

OD2 boasts the largest available download catalogue outside North America, but our search on the site revealed - yet again - a deficit of artists for which many of our readers would search, including Australian pub favourites Australian Crawl, Cold Chisel and INXS. This is particularly disappointing in that ninemsn was touting at the launch that its service was designed for back-catalogue as well as independent labels. Maybe more content will be available down the track, following demand from you, the audience.

Prices range from $1.45 to $1.89. Unlike its competitors, this service offers incentives for volume purchases, as opposed to special discounts on selected stock. This means that in addition to the standard pay-as-you-go option, a monthly subscription package offering bonus credits is available. Of note, unused credits in the monthly subscription packages cannot be carried into subsequent months. You can stream a song in full for 5c, and listen to 30-second streams for free, in line with other download services.

Windows Media Player and Microsoft Digital Rights Management technology are employed on this site to manage downloads, although ninemsn also encourages the installation of its free download manager to assist new users to get their songs of choice. Depending on label agreements, users can burn songs to CD from one to 10 times, transfer songs to portable devices "multiple" times, and retain their songs with up to four reinstalls.

Overall, this site is easy to use and navigate. Most popular artists are well represented, but more real independent and back-catalogue content would be well received by users.

music.ninemsn.com.au

Off the track: Warp Records

Although not an Australian site, this seminal UK and world-famous electronica label is likely to be the first in the world to offer its entire back-catalogue for download. Artists include Aphex Twin, Autechre, Nightmares on Wax, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada, Plaid, Two Lone Swordsmen, LFO and more.

Digital music files downloaded from Warp come as variable bit rate MP3s with no form of DRM, and at a very high average quality of 205Kbps. Albums are priced at £6.99 (about $17) and double albums at £8.99 (about $22), with some albums at mid-pricing. Individual tracks are 99p (about $2.40). Payment methods include credit card and PayPal.

www.bleep.com

Click here for a screen shot of the bleep site.

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Danny Allen

PC World

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