The Thrills Focus on… Music downloading

Epiphany One: Music downloading is not only cool, it makes you more popular. Admittedly this is only with my bank manager who rang me up to understand quite why I’d spent $300 I don’t have, over the past month, on ‘something called iTunes’. But still, she likes me more now.

Ephiphany Two: Music downloading is addictive and far too convenient. It’s not a little addictive. In fact I’d hazard its even more addictive than that penguin game. (If you’ve never played the penguin game go to // and try and beat 593.5!!!). Fortunately it is less dangerous; don’t play that game unless you’ve got ‘develop carpal tunnel syndrome’ on your to-do list.

Now your kind Harbus Entertainment Editors wouldn’t want you to waste time and money getting addicted to the wrong things, so here is our guide to the top 3 sources of music available online.

Napster 2.0
Everyone knows Napster. Most people have used Napster v1.0., which arguably re-ignited many people’s passion for music, making it easier to sample different artists and expand musical tastes. The only itsy-bitsy problem was that what it did was completely and utterly illegal. Which to be honest, was a real bummer, ‘cos, man it was cool. Enter Napster 2.0, the legal version of Shawn Fanning’s groundbreaking peer to peer sharing network.

Napster sells music downloads for $.99 per song or $9.95 per album though album pricing varies. In return for a $9.95 monthly subscription fee their premium service also gives you access to unlimited streaming of any of their 500,000 songs, while also offering each file for permanent download at 99c.

If you use your PC as a jukebox, Napster, in our view, offers the best value for money. The unlimited streaming service means you can design your own ad-free radio station and listen to music without having to purchase the file. The big problem though is the quality of the streaming.

At 96kbps the streamed music is of notably poorer quality than a CD or the radio. This could be quite big problem given that most people interested in this service will probably hook their PC into a set of speakers and use it as a music station.

iTunes is without doubt the Bernie Ecclestone of the online music world.

No we don’t mean it resembles a very small, wrinkled Brit. Instead with sales of 1.5m tracks each week they are, like Bernie, the market maker.

However even with low price 99c downloads and no subscription fee there are dark clouds on the horizon for this player.

Firstly Apple’s AAC format is completely proprietary. What this means is that the files you download only works on Apple’s iPOD and with iTunes.

This means you can’t easily play the files you download from iTUNES on any other music device or with any other music player. It is possible, but the hassle factor is significant. Apple’s strategy is to build these barriers and lock consumers in. As a result analysts are predicting that iTUNES will add $100m to Apple’s turnover, the majority of this coming from the corresponding increase in iPODs.

This is fine at the moment, because the iPOD is the standout mp3 player on the market. But this year there promises to be significant new competitive models from Sony, Samsung and virtually every other electronics manufacturer. Whether this barrier is sustainable in the long term remains to be seen. We would certainly caution users from buying through iTunes if you’re planning on ever moving away from the iPOD.

Under the current setup, the more music you buy the greater the barriers to switching become.

Customers might be willing to accept this if they gained access to a wider music catalogue. However their current library is no larger than any other player, Napster offers the same 500,000 tracks as iTunes. Linkups with AOL for live sessions, select imports, and unique licensing deals, such as the recent Lord of the Rings soundtrack available only through iTunes, attempt to differentiate them from other players, but currently these differences are minimal. Unless iTunes establishes a significant monopoly in this market, or compensates the record companies for signing unique licensing agreements then this approach is doomed to fail. With the record companies taking stakes in many of the current retailers (Napster and Musicmatch for instance) iTunes looks like it will fight an unsuccessful uphill battle if it wants to pursue this approach across the board.

KaZaa & iMesh are the leaders in illegal downloading services. By connecting to other computers, you potentially have access to any music ever produced, anywhere. That old Kinks B-side, the latest Britney Spears album; all are potentially available, someone else with the track just needs to hook their computer up to the network.

Morality of property rights infringement aside, the music available over this service was free, if you were willing to put up with even more annoying banner ads and spyware. That has all changed. While acquiring a song may still simply be a factor of the time it takes you to find it on the network, the RIAA enforcement teams that now troll these services and dish out punitive damages of $1000 a track, should now put off all but the most morally corrupt and foolhardily adventurous.

In addition, the music companies have cottoned on to these channels. Even though they have not successfully shut down these virtual networks, they now employ people to swamp these networks with ‘noise’. What this involves is releasing several different files all named ‘correctly’, but all filled with an incomplete song. The most common tactics include ‘white noise’ inserted every 10s, or the release of a repeating 15s section of the song. The end result, its very difficult to guarantee the quality of the file you download, until you have downloaded it. The music companies have successfully increased the hassle factor of using these services, making it very difficult for a user to find complete songs.