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July 22, 2003

BuyMusic.com -- a Review

So, being that I'm not a member of the Mac tribe, and am unlikely to become so anytime soon, I was thrilled that Buy.com has started BuyMusic.com today. It's an iTunes-like service which features something on the order of 300,000 downloadable songs, all available for those of us of the Windows persuasion -- indeed, since the files are all in the Windows Media format, it's not available to Mac users at all (they already have iTunes, so they're probably not crying). You can download individual tracks for prices ranging from 79 cents to 99 cents, and albums starting at $7.99, although newer albums get into the $12.99 range and above, which is probably indicative of the music companies' desire for you to go out and actually buy the disc. Like iTunes, you don't need to subscribe -- you can buy stuff a la carte. So I did.

My initial impressions are that the service is adequate-to-good with a lot of space to improve. To begin with, I found the restrictions on the site kind of annoying for me specifically: BuyMusic.com can only be accessed with Microsoft's IE browser. Since my default browser is Mozilla's Firebird, this is something of a hassle, but this is probably not an issue for the 96% of you who use IE as your default browser.

My second problem is that for some reason BuyMusic.com is under the impression that my IP address is from out of the country, which it is not, unless Ohio seceded from the rest of the US overnight. I suspect this has something to do with my satellite modem. But as BuyMusic.com does not allow people from outside the US and Canada to download music, the site wouldn't let me buy anything initially. My workaround for this was to connect with my dial-up AOL connection through the purchasing process, thereby providing the site with a onshore IP address, and then switch off AOL when I came to the download page in order to use the broadband connection I have through the satellite. It's pointless and stupid, but isn't that just life for you. I'd be interested to know if any other satellite and/or broadband users have the same problem.

BuyMusic.com's music selection is interestingly spotty, although that's not entirely unexpected at this point. The selections are largely confined to major labels for now, and many of the major artists aren't represented, or if they are, it's just some of their work. U2, for example, is limited to their last full album (All That You Can't Leave Behind) and their "Greatest Hits" collections; there are no tracks from the Beatles or the Stones. Obscure bands are likewise somewhat randomly represented: Spandau Ballet and Haircut 100, for example, get only a track of an 80s compilation, whereas the equally one-hiterrific When in Rome has an entire album for download. At this point it's hit and miss as to what you'll find.

Rather more of a drawback is that some albums advertised for sale either aren't downloadable as full albums (only selected tracks available for download) or aren't downloadable at all. I purchased Depeche Mode's 81-85 singles collection for download and wasn't provided any download page at all. This is a real big issue, obviously; nothing's going to irritate customers more than paying for an album that they then can't download (I sent a note to the help desk, which theoretically at least will deal with the issue within one working day. We'll see).

Each .wma file is encoded at 128Kbps, which presumably provides CD equivalent quality music, although I found the music replication to be variable, even within albums themselves. For example, Barenaked Ladies' "The Old Apartment" for their greatest hits package sounds just peachy, but "Pinch Me," from the same album, sounds statically sibilant in that way that .wma files often do (.wma files in my experience have a real problem with higher frequencies).

Each track also has varying amounts of digital rights management restrictions encoded into them, relating to the number of computers the file can be downloaded onto, how many transfers to portable players it allows, and how many times the track can be burned onto a CD. Newer tracks typically more restricted than older tracks: "Woman in Chains," a 12-year-old track from Tears for Fears that I downloaded, for example, offers unlimited burning and transfers, but can only be downloaded onto one computer; the Barenaked Ladies album tracks allow you to download them onto three computers and make unlimited file transfers, but you can only burn the track to CD three times. Clearly these restrictions are of nominal concern to anyone with minimal technical knowledge and/or a desire to burn the track more than the number of allotted times, but it serves the purpose of keeping casual listeners tied down, and that's fine.

The download process itself is pretty simple (it's like downloading any software from the net), although when you download an entire album, you have to download it track by track instead of having an option to have the whole thing downloaded as one file. This is a kind of work-intensive, especially if the album has a lot of tracks (the Barenaked Ladies disc had 19 tracks).

I thought the design of the BuyMusic.com site itself was pretty kludgy, in that it's not at all easy to do any real browsing for tracks. If you've got a specific band or track in mind, the search function finds it (if it's there), but otherwise it's a hard slog through lots of screen to find interesting stuff.

Right out of the gate, I give BuyMusic.com a C all the way around: The music collection is adequate but could be larger and definitely needs indie artists, the UI is tolerable but needs improvement, and the music files themselves are generally okay but of inconsistent quality. The good news here is that I suspect this is only the first such store for Windows users: iTunes will have a Windows version later, and if Amazon, et al., don't start doing this stuff soon, I'll eat my hat. In the meantime, this is a serviceable but not spectacular way to do the right thing and actually pay for music online.

Posted by john at July 22, 2003 03:00 PM

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Comments

MAB | July 22, 2003 03:46 PM

Now that it matters to most users of the service (I suspect), but how is their classical selection?

Anonymous | July 22, 2003 03:50 PM

Hmmm. I didn't check that, actually.

WT | July 22, 2003 04:56 PM

The idea of these services is excellent. Pay for only the songs you want so that you don't have to pay a bloated price for half a disk that you are not going to enjoy.

However, if I'm going to spend money on something, I don't want to be told how to use it. I don't want to be told that I can download it to my home computer but can't download it to my laptop for extended travel. I make compilation disks to suit my mood, sometimes that means a specific song will be present on many disks so I don't want to be told how many compilations I'm allowed.

What really aggrivates me is that the recording industry tells us CD's have to be priced at upwards of $18 a disk because it costs SOOO much to create an album, while at the same time crying over what people can do with CD quality music because bootleg CD's created on $600 computers using $0.30 blank CD's rivals the quality that the industry spends huge sums of money on. Yet, if I don't want restrictions on the use of the music I paid for, I have to buy a whole disk for more money than it costs to buy the tracks individually. So now they get to screw you over no matter which "legal" route you choose.

On one hand I know that the people who illegally download music are causing these headaches as the industry thinks up more and more moronic ways to try to combat them. But then when you see how the recording industry responds by punishing the law abiding music purchaser, I have to applaud the thieves as well. Someone needed to stick it to these arrogant recording execs.

deh | July 22, 2003 05:24 PM

Interesting. Thanks for the headsup.

I predict that buyMusic will not take off.

First, the 128kbps .wma is going to kill them. The previews have awful quality - and I'm assuming the actual downloadable songs have substantially better quality. Even still, 128bit encoding with old codecs is not acceptable. WMA in general is not very well accepted. It's sort of the bastard codec of the bunch.

Second, lack of integration. Browser integration is nice, but iTunes is a real hit with all of the playing/organizing/transferring to mp3 players/burning all in one place. Web applications are not as compelling as OS integrated applications. For the casual user, it is far easier to have a single solution for all your needs. If you need support, you'll get buyMusic pointing their finger at your CDR mfg, who will blame windows. Reading their compatibility notes, you have to use a player with built in DRM or it won't play the files at all. All in all, a big mess of compatibility issues. iTunes/iPods do not fight this battle.

Third: Big Bad DRM. It is not clear to me how they enforce their DRM, but it is rather more stringent than iTunes, and completely random. Each company has its own rules, and so all your files will have different rules. This would be MADDENING. Assuming they can actually enforce things - 3 transfer to your digital player? Awful. Say your memory card gets wiped, you have to reload all of your music. If you've done that too many times, your collection is suddenly unusable. Same with burnable CD's. Lose the CD you burn and want to make another? Sorry, you're over your allotment. Lose your harddrive? Want your music back? Sorry, you only get one download. Lose it, and you're screwed. iTunes is not crippled by these problems.

PS: What's up with radiohead showing up in buyMusic's archives, but not in iTunes? They and a few other bands were bitching about not wanting their songs sold piecemeal on iTunes. Now they appear piecemeal on buymusic? Bizarre.

PSS: Their 79c advertising is bullshit. At least Apple doesn't lie about their pricing - they say 99c and they're all 99c. Buymusic says "from 79c" but almost every song on the front page is 99c. wtg. That said, their album pricing is about comparable to itunes. I don't recall seeing many over 10$ albums on iTunes - only time that happens is if you can't buy the entire album, and have to buy songs individually. There are some cheaper albums on buymusic, and some more expensive. It probably averages out.

rick mcginnis | July 22, 2003 07:33 PM

I have to stick with the Devil's side on this issue. The burning limit, the pricing, the spotty, decidedly mainstream selection - nothing I've heard here has convinced me to uninstall KaZaA from my machine.

Never mind the money thing - and as long as people can download music for FREE, the money thing will remain the killer - the restrictions and technical problems just aren't selling me on the whole idea. And since my tastes tend to the obscure and the out-of-print, generally, I just ain't lovin' services like iTunes or buymusic.

Call me Evil.

Bill | July 22, 2003 08:07 PM

You're evil.

(Hey, you asked.)

I'm glad to see another service like this show up. Because it means when iTunes/Windows comes out, Apple's going to need a terrific advantage over the competitors to convince people to use their store rather than PlayMusic, etc. The ease-of-use features won't do the trick, because Windows users are used to the lack thereof. The higher-quality format and consistent, less-restrictive DRM is nice, but I don't think it'll be enough.

No, what they're going to need to do to beat PlayMusic and the like is beef up their catalog a whole lot. Right now, it's about the same size as PlayMusic's; they'll need to make it much bigger, and drag the Indies on board by whatever means necessary. Which is exactly what I need them to do before I'm likely to buy much of anything from them.

Anonymous | July 22, 2003 08:41 PM

Quality and selection are my two issues. I'm listening to Rocket From The Crypt at 160Kbps as I write this and couldn't be happier. I uploaded it from my own CD by the way. The way I see it I have three options:

itunes et al: Costs money, low quality (sometimes), bad selection.

kazaa: free, low quality(sometimes), HUGE selection

Quirky used cd store downtown: Costs money, CD quality (literally), good selection, liner notes, cool record store atmosphere.

I'm going with a combination of kazaa and CDs for now. As far as I can tell, there is not a single advantage of the services over kazaa. But even if the services work out ease of use and quality I'm not bothering until they get some real indie stuff.

Henry | July 22, 2003 08:45 PM

Oops, left my name and last sentence off. The bottom line is I'm not going to pay money for sample quality music.

mark | July 22, 2003 09:03 PM

Advantages over KazAa? Well, you get to feel that rich smugness when you tell people "I'm not a pirate anymore... just thought you should know... me matey I've grown up... yeah I've been buying music... in fact I have paid for all my collection..."[0]). Also, presumably download speeds are much higher (but then, y'all ain't on dialup, are you?). Also, you don't need to open up the higher ports on your machine (I've stopped using filesharing progs, simply because they won't get through my firewall and I couldn't be bothered editing it to allow them... oh, and the morality issue of course).

There are cons, though, as you mentioned. Why can't people buy outside of the US? Why are people restricted to IE6? Why the useless goddamn DRM? Why the low bitrate? Why, for the love of all that is good and holy, why use WMA?

Sites like this (and iTunes as well, perhaps, though I've not looked at it) are probably no more or less difficult to access than filesharing networks, and yet they cost more and provide fewer titles for download. So, people who're visiting them are there to show willing -- they're saying, "look, I want to give you my money here. I don't have to, but I like your music so much I will". Are the companies so *stupid* that they've started to regard "Internet users" as synonymous with "thief"? Even those trying to force dollar notes into their grease-stained hands in order to obtain their music legally are assumed to be no better than the average P2P leech. And what are non-Americans meant to do? CDs are expensive, and increasingly plastered with "don't buy me" (that is, "copy-protected") stickers. KazAa it is...

There isn't really any excuse for music piracy ("we'd be getting ripped off if we bought CDs, so we'll rip *them* off instead") -- which is not to say I'll be deleting my Hendrix collection -- but anything that irritates record company execs is alright in my book at this stage. Goddamn morons.


[0] That's a really poor attempt to stick to the tune of a song by a not-too-popular but much-good band. Any guesses?

Jim | July 22, 2003 10:02 PM

Your description of the process and the problems has already convinced me that I'm not going to give them my business. I use Mozilla on my home machine (well, I use it on my work machine too, but it's the home machine on my home LAN with the cable Internet access that I would download music onto) and I'm not pleased with people who want my money but then try to dictate what browser I use.

Besides which, the RIAA has pissed me off enough that I decided a few weeks ago to just boycott them. I have never downloaded a single illegal piece of music. I may not be in that teen/twenties demographic, but I have been a fairly heavy purchaser of music -- both as gifts and for myself. In fact, I probably have been a very profitable customer, because I have purchased many CD versions of stuff that had been out on vinyl in the 50's and 60's and 70's and which represents easy dollars for the record companies. But I have had it with those sleasy bastards proclaiming how they own every damned thing I buy and how they want to be able to spy on my computer drives and they want the ability to pull hacker attacks to destroy my computer if they suspect me of listening to something that I can't prove I purchased. Nope. I've purchased my last music industry CD (I will still buy direct from artists, etc., but no more music stores and no more CDs from Amazon.com for me. They may not miss the profits from the two dozen or so CDs I purchase most years, but I'll have the satisfaction of knowing they are not getting any of my money.

Ben Dyer | July 23, 2003 09:19 AM

By the way, on the indie front, iTMS is working on bringing indie labels into the fold of their music store, too.

Now if they could just sign on some more international labels...

Bill | July 23, 2003 12:37 PM

In an interesting twist that relates to CD Baby, a company John's mentioned numerous times, CD Baby has apparently worked out a deal with the iTunes Music Store to act as a digital distributor for their clients. If an artist owns the rights to a song (or album), CD Baby will charge a $40 one-time fee to set things up and provide the AAC files to Apple. Apple gets roughly a 30% cut. Of the remaining 70%, CD Baby takes 9% and passes the remaining 91% on to the artist. Which works out to something like 62 cents per track going to the artist, which is pretty darn good from what I've heard.

In response to some of the comments above: iTunes generally has much higher-quality files than you'll find on sharing networks. Where possible (which is the vast majority of the time), tracks are encoded from the original masters, not from a CD. So they're not samples of samples, and hence come much, much closer to CD quality than if they were ripped the traditional way.

And having fudged around with various sharing clients for a while (I wanted a copy of "I'm Against It" by Groucho Marx, and had a hell of a time finding it on three different networks), I can say with confidence that iTMS is a whole lot easier. Having the store built into the player is a huge boon. Accessing the catalog is basically the same as accessing a playlist, and when you buy tracks, they're just added to your library; the download process is entirely transparent.

rick mcginnis | July 24, 2003 12:41 PM

"I'm Against It" is my theme song, and I found it in about twenty seconds on KaZaA, which is about par for the course there.

I should add that, not being the holder of a credit card, discussions of buying music online are pretty much moot for me. In addition, I've been a collector of music for thirty years, with LP and CD collections running into the thousands, so there's this (probably illogical) sense that I've paid into the Moloch that is the record industry many times over, and it's about time I got to coast a bit.

I mean, I still buy music monthly. I just don't feel like paying for the same Stones/Who/Zep tracks one more time. And if I can find an MP3 of the Ork single of "Little Johnny Jewel" on KaZaA - I've only ever seen one copy of the thing in my life - all the better.