Online music services - Better than free?

More people than ever are downloading music from the Internet. Many use person-to-person file sharing programs like Kazaa to share and download music in MP3 format, paying nothing. This makes it difficult for companies to setup online music businesses. How can companies compete against free?

Two new online music services are trying to do just that. BuyMusic.com, and Apple's iTunes Music Store are competing with P2P networks by minimizing the barriers to purchasing music. They are also offering services that are, in many ways, better than what can be found on file sharing networks.

File sharing networks have many problems. They're insecure if improperly configured, exposing some users' private files to the Internet. "Trojan horse" files masquerade as popular applications or songs, but are instead viruses, advertisements, or junk files designed to frustrate uses. Downloads are often mislabeled, of poor quality, or incomplete. Songs in less-popular categories are difficult to find. The RIAA has even vowed to sue people that use these networks to trade music files.

The problems that come with file-sharing networks create an opportunity for companies to provide better services. The earliest commercial offerings were not compelling alternatives for many reasons, such as limited selection, monthly fees, or the fact that there were strings attached to the downloads.

Two of the newer services, BuyMusic.com and Apple's iTunes Music store, are generating a lot of interest because they are providing a closer match to what people want. For these services to be successful, they have to provide an appealing alternative to popular file-sharing services like Kazaa. Here's how they compare.

Getting started

Kazaa requires a download and installation. It installs a variety of software in addition to the Kazaa Media Desktop, and it's easy to see how some users could find the process confusing. Once installed, the interface is busy, includes several advertisements, and has interface buttons that are for services that piggyback on the popularity of the file-trading service.

iTunes Music Store is available within Apple's iTunes software. It currently runs only in Macintosh computers. The Music Store is built into the iTunes application seamlessly, so there's nothing to install or configure.

BuyMusic runs within a web browser, so there's nothing to install. It is limited, though, by the fact that it only supports Windows machines running Internet Explorer 5 or higher.

Each of these options has significant limitations. BuyMusic will be the easiest to get started with for most users.

Use

I recently compared these services, looking for music by popular artists in a variety of categories. I searched for recent Grammy Award winners, such as Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why", No Doubt's "Hey Baby", and Johnny Cash's "Give my love to Rose." All of the songs showed up in searches on both iTunes Music Store and Kazaa. At BuyMusic, I was only able to find 8 of the 10 songs I was looking for.

There are many other differences between the three options.

Kazaa

Kazaa was easy to search, but was plagued by intrusive advertising and annoying popups. Kazaa's information comes from a distributed network of users, and this, unfortunately, creates problems. One song may show up a dozen times in the search results. This can be because of variations in the file sizes, encoding rates, or names. This also makes it difficult to search for an album of songs.

iTunes Music Store

The iTunes Music Store was the most elegant. It is integrated directly into the iTunes application. Searches returned not only a link to preview each song, but also a picture of the Album cover.

While the user interface of iTunes is easy to use, it breaks many standard conventions of web user interfaces. Navigation elements jump around somewhat arbitrarily. At top levels of the site, navigation is text-based, and is on the left hand side. As you go deeper into the site, the navigation changes into icons and jumps to the top. Some users may not mind this, since the iTunes store is not really a web site, but part of the iTunes application.

The iTunes search is split between the main store pane, which includes a text-based link to the "Power Search", and a standard search field integrated into the iTunes application task bar. Some users may find this confusing. Another feature that some users may find confusing is that the "Today's Top Songs" and "Today's Top Albums" links change based on the area of the site that you're in, while the "Featured Artists" links don't. Navigate to the Classical genre, and "Featured Artists" lists artists like Moby, Neil Young, and Macy Gray.

The biggest problem with iTunes Music Store is that it's Mac-only. That effectively makes it useless for 96% percent of computer users. Apple has plans to eventually support PC users.

BuyMusic

BuyMusic is a fairly conventional e-commerce web site. It's easy to navigate, has a search on the home page, and is relatively fast. The site markets a variety of equipment such as CD burners, software, media and portable players in addition to the music downloads. It also features tutorial videos on how to download music to your computer, burn it to a CD, and transfer it to a portable device.

BuyMusic has its share of interface quirks, though. Navigate to the "New Age" section, and the Top Singles listed are by pop acts like Justin Timberlake and Coldplay. Browsing for new artists is a little cumbersome, too, and pales in comparison to sites that have well-integrated recommendation systems, like Amazon.com.

Licensing

Many Internet users don't worry about music licensing. The RIAA has vowed to go after users that download and share music online. How this will affect users of Kazaa and other file sharing networks remains to be seen.

The BuyMusic licensing model is confusing because it varies by song. This may confuse users that have never had to think about license rights with CDs they've purchased. For example, with BuyMusic, you can only transfer your downloads to approved portable devices. Downloads also come with Primary and Secondary rights. The primary rights are associated with a specific computer and are non-transferable. Each track also has usage rules associated with it for the number of computers that you can transfer it to, the number of approved portable media players you can copy to, and the number of CD's that you can burn.

The iTunes approach is much easier to understand. They have a flat rate for downloads, and consistent licensing that is fairly non-restrictive. This may seem like a minor detail to some, but when you're trying to generate a market competing against free tools, this detail becomes important.

Competing against free

There are millions of people that actively download music from the Internet. This is a huge potential market. Most of these users get their music from person-to-person file sharing networks, such as Kazaa.

Two new stores, BuyMusic.com and Apple's iTunes Music Store, have come closer to meeting the needs of users than earlier approaches. BuyMusic's greatest feature is compatibility with Windows, but their confusing licensing complicates using it. Apple's iTunes Music Store is an elegant and easy-to-use way of adding music to your collection, but is limited to Macs, and has a few "version 1" flaws. Both these services are head & shoulders above their competitors, and suggest that online music business may no longer be an oxymoron.

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