Music Services Compared

Oh, how time flies: It’s been three long years since Digital Trends last did a roundup of legal music download sites, and my, hasn’t the baby grown?

Some of the big names are still around (i.e. iTunes). Some of the smaller names that showed past potential have really developed (e.g. eMusic). A few have more have fallen by the wayside (we won’t mention any names). And, yes, as ever, there are also several new kids on the block (see:’s music store).

The upshot: We’re now in an era where everyone and their brother seem to have digital music featured on their site. And it’s all blown up in a way industry insiders had hoped, but no one really anticipated. Labels have their own music shops where tracks can be bought. Streaming downloads have become more important. Portable music players are now ubiquitous, after slimming down in size but seeing storage capacities grow, with video playback now a vital component on many models. Music on cell phones is also quite standard as features go today, with many handsets made to double as music players. In short, wherever you go, whatever you’re doing, you can take your music right there with you.

Helping illustrate just how prolific music’s online presence has become, remember, three years ago MySpace and Facebook were barely twinkles in their parents’ eyes. Now, they’re giants just starting to dip their toes into the record biz, either directly or indirectly, and act as vital showcases for so many bands, signed and unsigned alike.

One thing that hasn’t gone away, though, is the issue of digital rights management (DRM), or copy protection. However, the business is slowly but surely moving away from it, as services realize that offering DRM-free tracks is preferable to consumers, with even the mighty iTunes now offering some content completely free of this technology. Bands are further making tracks available for download – entire albums in the case of Radiohead – for next to nothing or pro bono in some cases, just to pull in an audience who will pay for more music.

Although the basics are much the same as they were in 2005, the playing field has definitely altered. Music downloads are a huge business now, and the potential for growth is just going to keep booming. Sure, record labels continue to moan about decreased CD sales and the fact that downloads don’t make up the difference. But more and more, digital downloads are the way most of us are now consuming music. Face it: The younger generation thinks in tracks, not albums, and given how much filler there’s been in the past, it’s a good mindset to have.

In fact, there are so many options for downloading music these days that searching for the right one can seem like wandering through a dense forest without a map. (Or, to offer a more modern analogy, a handheld GPS unit…) What follows isn’t a complete map, either; it’s simply a few signposts along the way, not to mention a look strictly at actual download services, not streaming song providers. The services we are talking about today include:

  • Apple iTunes
  • Napster
  • Rhapsody
  • music
  • Wal-Mart
  • eMusic
  • Yahoo Music Unlimited

With all the variety available, remember: Only you know which digital music download option fits your lifestyle best. Still, it’s worth noting that, across the board, the amount of tracks each service offers is constantly increasing, depending on what new deals they’ve signed with individual labels. Take the figures here as a rough estimate – next week they could be well out of date, all for the positive. Additionally, many services offer special promotions that include free downloads, which vary from time to time, so check back often to see what’s in store.

Ready to get the party started? Let’s go! After all, picking the right music download service isn’t a song and dance…

*Disclaimer: all prices mention are USD.


Apple iTunes

A bit bruised and battered, but still overall champion, Apple’s iTunes remains top dog as far as music download services go.

Granted, you still have to download the application (which works fine on both Mac and Windows), create an account, and buy your music through it. (The program includes a music player.) But iTunes does boast the biggest selection of music (around six million tracks), covering major labels, indies and unsigned acts – in terms of pure exploratory interest, the service remains unrivalled.

The biggest downside is that the vast majority of the music is in the .MP4/.AAC format, and that means it will only play on the provided digital player or an iPod. (There’s no limit on the amount of iPods to which you can transfer music, at least.) iTunes does, however, carry some music in DRM-free .MP3 format, but for now it’s a limited selection as Apple tries to keep its stranglehold on the market. Depending where in the world you live, tracks also cost more than you’d pay in America, an ongoing bone of contention that’s headed for the courts.

That said, iTunes still enjoys the lion’s share of the digital music download market with around 80% sales dominance, so it’s going to take a while for the others to chip away at the behemoth that Steve Jobs has created.

How To Get There:
Prices: $0.99/track, ~$9.99/album



Surprise – Napster’s been legit now for a longer time than it existed on the fringes of the law, and become one of the powerhouse download destinations. You can download individual tracks and entire albums from the service ($0.99 and $9.99, respectively), but what the company’s really pushing is its subscription service, which means you have to be persistent in looking for individual tracks to download – not a good thing. Searching among the firm’s four million tracks isn’t easy either, since its creators keep wanting you to sign up for their lite service and download their player (which then requires the awkward joy of trying to import your music collection).

Granted, you do clearly retain ownership of any track you download versus subscribe to, which can be burnt onto CD or transferred to a portable device. However, you’d better be sure said device plays WMA files (sorry, iPod owners). Cheerfully though, this quarter the company should shift focus to the MP3 format according to an announcement made back in January.

As for subscriptions, there are two levels. Basic service costs $9.99 and lets you download as much music as you want, but songs have to stay on your computer. The “To Go” level ($14.95) allows you to transfer tracks to your music player or cell phone. However, neither option lets you burn tracks to CD. Worse, once your subscription lapses, they’ll no longer play.

How To Get There:
Prices: $0.99/track, $9.99/album, Subscriptions: $9.99 and $14.95.



Rhapsody parent Real Networks has been around a long time, and currently has the second-largest catalogue of any download service, with around four million tracks. Perhaps the biggest downside to what the provider features is that most of it is offered in the WMA format (or RAX), with only a few tracks actually of MP3 makeup. Note that WMA files will work with most portable players – just not the iPod.

Since it’s owned by Real, Rhapsody of course has its own player, and importing your own music collection is terrifyingly easy. Signing up is free, though you’ll need to create an account before you can download. (The program also allows you to listen to a number of songs completely for free, a plus if you’re considering a purchase of an unfamiliar track.) But be very wary, for it wants to become your first-choice media player. However, unlike Napster, the application includes an excellent search facility. Furthermore, pricing is largely the same as with other major services ($0.99 /track, ~$9.99/album) and you’re free to transfer to your portable player or burn to CD without limit.

Also note: Like Napster, Rhapsody offers subscriptions, and with the same limitations. There are two plans, priced $12.99 and $14.99, respectively. With the former, you can only play tracks on your computer, but the latter allows you to transfer them to your portable player. Even so, you still can’t burn CDs, and if you end your subscription, then the tracks just won’t play any more.

How To Get There:
Prices: $0.99/track, ~$9.99/album. Subscription rates are $12.99 and $14.99. Music

Amazon Music

Amazon’s a late entrant to the music download market, but the online retailer’s arrived in style, offering DRM-free tracks in MP3 format and pricing that’s lower than the major competition. As a result, it’s also giving buyers total freedom in terms of what they do with the music they’ve purchased (including dumping to and playing it on compatible devices like the iPod). Music is very much a work-in-progress, though, with its catalogue smaller than other major services, but that will doubtless change very quickly. What’s more, the search facility needs work, although Amazon’s history is such that improvements should be just around the corner. Downloads are simple too. However, if you choose to download an entire album you will first need to download an application.

No subscriptions here, just very much a WYSIWYG approach.

How To Get There:
Prices: $0.89/$0.99/track, albums from $4.95



Wal-Mart might still offer only a no-frills service, but it’s come a long way in three years. Then again, although the uber-retailer’s prices are cheap ($0.88/track for WMA format songs, $0.99 for MP3), there’s still a lot working against it for anyone who’s serious about music, including a library that’s pretty much limited to big names and major new releases only. Where family-friendly edits of tracks exist as well, that’s what they’re guaranteed to carry, so be warned, parental advisories definitely do apply! Also, you can’t search for a track in MP3 or WMA format.

How To Get There:
Prices: $0.89/song (WMA format), $0.99/song (MP3).



Back in 2005, eMusic was still very much the eager outsider. Since then it’s developed into a major player, while still sticking to its original ethos of only offering tracks and albums from independent labels. The good news: Everything is in MP3 format, with no copy restrictions, and at $9.99/month for 30 songs, the price per track works out very economically indeed. Better yet, if your subscription lapses the tracks you’ve already bought remain yours.

On the downside, you will need to register and get the firm’s download manager, and the music stores in its own file on your computer. The search facility could use some tweaking too, but generally works well. By far and away the biggest issue that you’ll encounter though is that you won’t find a lot of major names here, although some will find this caveat a great attraction. Besides, with a catalogue now approaching three million tracks, there’s still plenty of choice, especially if your tastes are off the beaten path.

How To Get There:
Prices: $9.99/month for 30 tracks.

Yahoo Music Unlimited

Yahoo Music

Yahoo Music Unlimited feels like the little engine that could, as though it’s still struggling up the hill with the top not in sight yet. The service is doing a lot of things right and trying hard, but you wonder if it’ll ever really get there.

The player is easy to download (although you need Windows XP or Vista to run it), but it does display that nagging urge to become your media player of choice. You can also buy individual tracks ($0.99/song) and entire albums ($8.00 and up), albeit just in WMA format, which means your iPod won’t handle them. What’s more, Yahoo! really wants you to subscribe.

True, subscriptions are dirt cheap at $5.99 a month. Nonetheless, with just two million tracks to choose from, the selection’s pretty small potatoes compared to what you’d find offered by other providers. These tracks are further limited to play on your computer alone, and if you let the subscription lapse, you can’t listen to them anymore. However, subscribers do pay less ($0.79) per track for music they download.

How To Get There:
Prices: $0.99/track, albums $8.00 and up. Subscriptions cost $5.99/month, which allows users to download tracks for $0.79/tune.

Bear in mind that there are other good services we haven’t covered here too, although they won’t all be available in all geographic locations.

For example, Oxfam has a wide selection of downloadable music, with 10% of the price going to charity, although it’s all in WMA format. Audiojelly ( devotes itself purely to dance music; Bleep ( is a haven for British indie music lovers; and anyone who’s admired the pioneering Rough Trade label will be happy to discover you can also download their music from a custom site (

Finally, don’t forget (, which provides free song downloads and – as the service is about to start offering digital music purchases as well – could become a major force in the biz. Or, for that matter, We7 ( where you can either pay for your downloads with money or by accepting ads, a new model that might well have legs amongst music fans, although the jury’s still out on that one.

Is there a winner?

To round it all out, unless you’re happy with proprietary restrictions, Amazon is probably the best of the bunch, with good pricing and tracks that are DRM-free. The selection might not be as large (but you can lay odds it will be soon), but it covers both major and indie labels, the service is good, and problems are dealt with in the company’s usual prompt fashion.

Bottom line: There’s no shortage when it comes to choice, or decent selections, for fans of every genre looking to buy their records, or singles, online. So no matter how you slice the situation, hey… let’s just say it’s music to our ears.


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