Online Music: New Hits and Misses

What is it with the music world these days? CD sales are falling through the floor, Senator Orrin Hatch has discussed destroying the MP3-laden PCs of file sharing fans, and the record industry is starting a campaign to sue the pants off individuals sharing large MP3 collections on Grokster and Kazaa. On the other hand, legal sources of digital music are multiplying and improving, and suddenly Apple is selling more tunes than your local record store. Welcome to the New Age of Digital Music.

Since the days of Napster and, people have been clamoring for music (legal or otherwise) on the Net. On the PC side, the picture is still pretty cloudy, as I discovered when I went in search of music I could download--or just listen to--legally. But with the success of the ITunes Music Store, Apple has shown that consumers--or at least a bunch of early-adopting Mac users--will pay for digital music.

Sure, an abundance of sites will let you do just that, but no two are alike in the music or the services they offer. Most PC-friendly services, such as FullAudio MusicNow, Musicmatch MX Platinum, MusicNet@AOL, Pressplay, and RealNetworks RealOne Rhapsody, stream songs to you on the fly and often let you store tracks on your PC, but they won't let you play them on another PC, burn them to a CD, or move them to a portable player without paying an additional fee. Meanwhile, EMusic has an impressive group of independent record labels (but few mainstream artists) behind its unlimited downloads service, which offers files free of any digital rights management (DRM) restrictions on their use.

New options are arriving: Apple plans to introduce a Windows version of its Mac-only ITunes Music Store, which sells songs for 99 cents each with no subscription fees. At press time, rolled out, an ITunes-like store that works with Windows PCs. And MusicNet, Pressplay, and Rhapsody plan to launch their own subscription-free stores. I went trolling on the Web to see if any of the current options are worth singing about, and found that while no service is perfect, EMusic and Rhapsody are good values.

Buying vs. Listening

The seven music services I sampled work in as many different ways. Which one you'll like best depends on how you plan to consume digital music. Have a broadband connection where you do most of your listening? The wide selection of a streaming service like Musicmatch or Rhapsody could be a great value for you. Can't live without your portable MP3 player? You might prefer a download-focused service like EMusic. The decision boils down to one basic question: Do you want to take your tunes with you?

If you've ever tried to purchase music online, you know why the Apple ITunes Music Store has so many people excited. It offers the perfect take-it-or-leave-it approach: There are no initial-setup or subscription fees; find a track you like, and for 99 cents and a short download, it's yours. If the DRM scheme for the PC version works as well as it does on Macs, Apple should have a winner on its hands.

MusicNet, MusicNow, Pressplay, and Rhapsody all offer a way to burn tunes to CD or download them to a portable player. After all, who wants to pay a $9-to-$10-per-month subscription fee so you can pay full price for music? These services are better values if you also plan to take advantage of their radio-like streaming features. Musicmatch doesn't let you burn or download tracks at all, but at $5 per month, it costs only half as much as the average streaming service.

Streaming songs from a gigantic collection of music can be a powerful draw. RealOne Rhapsody, for example, makes finding your favorite artists and pulling together endless amounts of playlists very easy. And since streaming services have hundreds of thousands of tracks, finding new music through them is easier than going through an online music store that contains only 30-second preview clips.

EMusic takes a unique approach to downloadable music. It's subscription-based ($10 per month for a year's subscription or $15 per month for three months), but once you're a subscriber, you can download as much music as you want from its catalog of independent record labels. The files aren't copy protected, so after you download them, you're free to burn them to CDs or transfer them to MP3 players as you wish. Find one album per month that you'd like to download, and you've already saved money. There are a couple of catches, though: EMusic's selection contains few mainstream artists, so it's not right for everyone. And strictly speaking, the service isn't unlimited--if you download more than 2000 songs in a month, you may get a nasty e-mail message threatening to cancel your account if you don't scale back your activity.

Selection: Hits and Misses

Although the number of songs offered online is growing every day, none of the services I looked at came close to the promise of the celestial jukebox with every song you could possibly want available on demand. Most struggle just to match the terrestrial record store down the street. Complex licensing agreements with record labels and artists mean that it's almost impossible to predict which artists' work will be for sale on any given service.

Well-known songs from the Beatles, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones aren't legally available for download anywhere because those artists haven't jumped into the online music game yet. In addition, the discographies of some artists often have gaping holes. You won't find any Elvis Costello albums from before 1998, or any R.E.M. after 1992, online.

Not that online services offer unimpressive selections. In my file searches, Rhapsody turned in the best results, including some new and little-known artists, as well as preview tracks from upcoming albums. Most of the services provide the same basic selection, except for EMusic, which stocks tracks only from the 900 or so independent record labels it has signed up. None can match the find-anything-eventually promise of file sharing networks such as Grokster and Kazaa, but the 250,000-plus songs available on even the most sparse of the services I tested is a good value for $10 per month.

Every service has holes in its collection, but some are up-front about it while others try to camouflage their omissions. The Artist On Demand portion of Musicmatch's MX Platinum makes finding specific tracks nearly impossible--its artist pages don't tell you anything beyond the number of songs it has. Until you start listening to the customized radio station that cycles through titles from the artist, you have no way to know whether it has Matthew Sweet's classic album Girlfriend (it doesn't) or just a few b-sides that he's contributed to movie soundtracks.

Fortunately, most of the subscription services offer a free or low-cost trial period before you commit. Use it to make sure your new online music source isn't missing too many of your favorites.

Apple's ITunes store has some exclusive tracks but doesn't go far beyond the selection offered by services like Pressplay, MusicNow, or MusicNet@AOL. The store's commitment-free approach, though, helps make its omissions seem less glaring--more like walking into a favorite record store and finding it doesn't have the album you want that week.

EMusic's unlimited DRM-free download approach makes the files you do find that much more valuable, and unlike most of the other services, it lets you search through its entire catalog before subscribing, or even signing up for a trial period. The selection is different from the other services', but there's something for everyone, including classical, jazz, indie rock, hip-hop, and even comedy.

Interface: Can You Find What You Want?

Any time you're looking through a collection of more than 200,000 tracks, you're going to need an efficient way to find and organize the songs you want. Unfortunately, this is where many online music services fall down.

Most are fine at simply searching for a title or an artist. If an artist, album, or track doesn't appear in its catalog, the search engine will usually recommend something similar. RealOne Rhapsody deserves special mention for its View All mode, which shows you an artist's entire discography, including albums not available online. This thoughtful addition makes Rhapsody a handy reference even if it doesn't have the song you want; it would be even better, though, if you could make that mode the default view.

The problems start when you try to manage the tunes in your collection. Neither MusicNet@AOL nor Pressplay offers a collapsible Artist/Album view--often the best way to view a large collection. Pressplay has plenty of intriguing ways to find music, such as a historical listing of albums that made Billboard's top 200. But the list shows every track on every album that made the top 200--and you can't collapse the songs into albums, which makes for lots of scrolling.

At least MusicNow and Pressplay enable you to organize your collection with capable media player apps like Musicmatch, WinAmp, and Windows Media Player. Each service offers a plan featuring unlimited downloads of copy-protected files. While you can't burn those songs to a CD or copy them to a portable player without paying a fee, you can play them through any media player that's able to handle Windows Media Audio files. That capability means you can slot those songs in with the rest of your PC-based MP3 collection as long as you're a subscriber. Copy-protected downloads from MusicNet, on the other hand, won't play in other programs until you pay for the track.

Again, Musicmatch's MX Platinum takes a different approach. Musicmatch's Artist On Demand and Composer On Demand services run through a browserlike interface in the Musicmatch media player. Find a musician or band you like, and you can pull up a radio station that streams not only their music but, if you wish, tunes from related artists as well. You can also add that artist to a custom radio station that you create, and you can specify whether the station plays their songs frequently or only occasionally.

In theory, your personal radio stations can be like the world's largest CD changer on shuffle play. In practice, you never know whether the service will have the best songs by any artist. Still, the related artists I found on the Artist On Demand radio stations were the best of the services I tested. A handy link on the site lets you play your custom radio stations through your browser if for some reason you can't install the player on your PC. (But don't tell your IS department I told you that.)

Audio Quality: High Fidelity?

Of course, the best interface in the world can't rescue streaming audio that sounds like a scratched LP. And any paid download should be held to even higher standards. Fortunately, most of the services I tested were good enough for my ears.

The highest quality streaming settings top out between 96 kilobits per second (Pressplay) and 132 kbps (MusicNet@AOL). MusicNet and Rhapsody sounded the best in my streaming tests, but I could still hear some watery-sounding compression artifacts at any of the available bit rates. The artifacts are more pronounced if you're using a slower Net connection, but generally the streaming audio is satisfactory for casual listening.

If copy-protected downloads are available (Musicmatch and Rhapsody don't offer them), they usually sound better than streams. Though Pressplay streams to you at 96 kbps, the 128-kbps WMA files you can download make for significantly better audio. Ideal bit rates depend on the compression scheme, but 128 kbps is usually an acceptable low limit.

EMusic takes home the Grammy for best-sounding paid downloads. Most of its files are stored in a high-quality variable-bit-rate MP3 format that intelligently changes the level of compression from moment to moment depending on the complexity of the song. Most Emusic files end up with an average bit rate in the range of 180 to 210 kbps, at which only the most discerning ears can distinguish the audio from CD quality. ITunes files sound nice as well, in a 128-kbps AAC format (AAC is a newer compression scheme developed by Dolby)--that sounded better to my ears than MP3 or WMA files of a comparable bit rate.

The Future's So Bright...

In short, the future is ITunes. The companies behind MusicNet@AOL, MusicNow, Pressplay, and Rhapsody all are planning to debut their own ITunes-like services in the coming months. In particular, Roxio, which purchased Pressplay in June and also owns the Napster trademark, plans to retool the Pressplay service and relaunch it early next year under the Napster name.

Not that everyone is planning big changes. Musicmatch will continue to focus on customized radio stations, while EMusic, which clearly had a good idea to begin with, plans to keep growing its network of independent record labels.

Next year should be an exciting time for digital music. Even if all the ITunes clones launch without a hitch, some key questions remain: Will any service accumulate a catalog that truly seems like a limitless collection of tunes? Will independent musicians and record labels be able to promote their songs on these new networks? Will Rhapsody wise up and move U2 out of the "Brit-rock" genre before Bono notices and throws a fit?

And of course there's still the biggest question: Will subscription- and fee-based music services be good enough to become a major part of how we buy and listen to music? We'll have to wait and see on that one. In the meantime, PC users can turn to streaming services like Rhapsody and to download services like EMusic for a taste of guilt-free digital music that's more than a one-hit wonder.

Services (in order of ranking) Monthly subscription cost Portable downloads/CD burns Portable download burn costs Download format Comments
RealOne Rhapsody $10 No/Yes $0.79 (burn only)   Offers cheap CD burns and a no-nonsense interface that acts as a reference even when songs aren't available.
EMusic $15 for 3 months; $10 for 1 year Yes/Yes Included 160-to-256-kbps variable-bit-rate MP3 Preview this eclectic selection before signing up. If you find enough albums you want, a subscription saves you money.
Apple ITunes Music Store n/a Yes/Yes $0.99 128-kbps AAC If the PC version's DRM scheme is as good as the Mac version's, this subscription-free service should be popular.
Musicmatch MX Platinum $5 (Platinum); $3 (Gold) No/No n/a n/a Low cost and an interesting radio-station approach make this streaming-only service an intriguing option.
FullAudio MusicNow $10 for unlimited streams and downloads Yes/Yes $0.99 128-kbps WMA Sluggish navigation, but streams and downloads sound good, and you can purchase tracks at a reasonable price.
Pressplay $10 for unlimited streams and downloads Yes/Yes $6 for 5, $10 for 10, $19 for 20 128-kbps WMA Unfortunately, interface inconsistencies make this otherwise attractive service difficult to use.
MusicNet@AOL 2.1 $9 for unlimited streams and downloads Yes/Yes $0.99 132-kbps RealAudio 8 Organizing your tunes is tedious, and you can't play downloaded tracks in any other media player.

- Eric Dahl is an associate editor for PC World.