Music Download Services Compared
By Chris Nickson
Given their predilection to cyber dominance, one of the biggest surprises is that it's taken Microsoft so long to start an online music service. Needless to say, theirs, MSN Music, which really only went live in August 2005, revolves around Windows Media Player, and WMA format. You'll need the ubiquitous Microsoft .NET passport to use it, along with the MSN Music assistant (a small download). You can play your music on up to five computers at any one time, and an excellent feature for parents allows you give a spending cap to your kids - which could prevent huge bills down the line (this is also available on iTunes and Musicmatch). It's download only, at 99 cents a track, and offers the best range of compatibility with portable players. The music catalogue is constantly growing, and in some interesting directions, bringing in plenty of world and roots music, as well as other less-explored roads. The only downside is that it means your music will all be in the WMA format, but it wouldn't be Microsoft without some restrictions, and WMA will at least play on portable devices. For the moment MSN Music is very much a work under construction, but if it continues along the same path, it will be big.
Site - http://music.msn.com/
Price - $0.99/song
Service Type - Download Only
Yahoo is another new player on the block, having unveiled its Yahoo! Music Unlimited earlier this year. It's a natural outgrowth from its Launchcast radio and music news site. For now at least, downloads to burn are only 79 cents, a savings of 20 cents over other services, and there's a good selection of music - they boast a library of over a million songs, although the concentration is squarely on the mainstream. What they're really after, though, is subscribers to their service. At $4.99 a month it's certainly a good deal, allowing you full library access to songs, which can be left on your computer or downloaded to compatible portable devices (currently just a small list). You can also share it - with restrictions of course - with others on Yahoo Messenger. However, as with other subscription services, you only have access to the music as long as you maintain your subscription. But if you do let it lapse, all those songs you've painstakingly collected don't vanish forever, though. Pay up and they'll be waiting for you, just as you left them, a nice little feature. The interface is fairly intuitive. All in all, Yahoo is a good deal, although it's currently only available in the U.S. (when it appears in the U.K. expect prices to be higher, as they are with iTunes and Virgin).
Site - http://music.yahoo.com/
Price - $0.79/song; $4.99/mo for temporary songs
Service Type - Download Only
As you might expect, Wal-Mart's online music service is as no-frills as its stores. The interface is a browser window or Windows Media Player - about as basic as you can get (although you will need to have one of Microsoft's .NET passports and MSN music assistant) - and it's download only, at 88 cents a track, no subscriptions. However, with a small library of less than half a million songs, you're not going to find much beyond the obvious, much as you'd expect from Wal-Mart. By comparison, Yahoo's service is much the better deal.
Site - http://musicdownloads.walmart.com/
Price - $0.88/song
Service Type - Download Only
Not content with trying to dominate many other parts of the business world, Richard Branson has launched Virgin into the online music age. Its aims are ambitious enough, wanting to be " a complete digital music store, a subscription music service, award-winning digital radio, a music management tool, a CD ripper/burner" - which would encompass almost everything. On the surface a subscription a good deal at $7.99 a month for unlimited transfer of music to your computer. But if you read the fine print, that doesn't let you transfer music to portable devices. And of course you can't burn any of those tracks to CD (for both those things you have to purchase the tracks at 99 cents each from the Virgin Digital Megastore). But it's still a better deal that Napster or Harmony. The interface has undergone a couple of changes since first launched, making it less gaudy and more user-friendly.
Site - http://www.virgindigital.com/
Price - $0.99/song; $7.99/month
Service Type - Download Only; streamable music
It still has a way to go to be a competitor for Musicmatch, which has established itself as one of the big dogs. The pricing is standard - the Music on Demand subscription service at $9.95 a month, buying tracks at 99 cents each - but although the library is only 800,000 tracks, there's a surprisingly pleasant depth to it that extends far outside the mainstream, and is nearly the equal of iTunes. The interface can seem confusing initially, but after a few minutes all becomes clear and easily navigable. And if your friends have Musicmatch's software, Musicmatch Jukebox, installed, you can mail them the playlists you've assembled, which they can stream free of charge. There's also an excellent feature that lets you give "allowances" to family members of friends in $10 increments each month - very handy for parents with musically rapacious kids.
Site - http://www.musicmatch.com/
Price - $0.99/song; $9.99/month
Service Type - Download Only; streamable music on demand
Finally, there's what might be termed the oddity in the bunch - eMusic. Like Wal-Mart's service, it's strictly download, but there the similarity ends. The downloads are mp3's, and you own them (you do need to download their Music Manager software). At $10 a month for 40 tracks it's a remarkable deal. But its appeal is for those whose tastes lie well outside the mainstream (full disclosure: I write reviews for eMusic). The company doesn't work with any major labels, only independent ones, so browsing becomes a trip down the byways rather than the highways. With constant additions to the catalogue in all areas, it can become a bit of a feast for music fans, and the search facility generally works well.
The Lowdown :
Site - http://www.emusic.com/
Price - $10/month for 40 tracks
Service Type - Download Only, and you own them
So which is best? It all boils down what you're after. If you simply want to download music from the charts, then Yahoo and Wal-Mart are your cheapest options. If you want music to play on your computer, then most of the services will work well for you. For your mp3 player, there are several options, with Yahoo the best of all. If you're an iPod owner..then you're stuck with iTunes. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but a bit limiting, although that will undoubtedly change - and probably sooner than we all think.
At the moment, online music is still in the shakedown stage. But the main players are already on the stage. It's just a case of seeing who'll end up with the leading roles.