Buy Music Unfettered by Digital Rights Management

Digital rights management (DRM) music restrictions are finally on their way out. Apple, which accounts for the majority of all U.S. music sales, has released its 10-million-track catalog from those constraints. DRM restrictions imposed by Apple and its competitors have limited both the number of PCs that can play songs and the kinds of devices that can read the files (you couldn't play a typical iTunes purchase on a Zune, for example). With the restrictions lifted, you'll be able to buy music from iTunes--or another store--for use however you want.

Competition is now wide open for these interoperable music files. Besides iTunes, millions of DRM-free files are available from Amazon, Rhapsody, Napster, Zune, eMusic, and others. But each store has its own benefits and limitations: price, file quality, selection, and other quirks. Here's how they all stack up in the DRM-free download world.

iTunes

Apple's lock on the MP3 player market vaulted its iTunes music store ahead of others. The store requires you to shop through iTunes software and is designed to work with iPods, but you can move purchased songs into Windows Media Player, with a caveat: iTunes doesn't actually sell MP3s.

Its "iTunes Plus" tracks--the DRM-free ones--are AAC (advanced audio codec) files. This format isn't proprietary to Apple, though the company is one of its most visible supporters. So in addition to iPods, DRM-free AAC tracks work on nearly all music players, in­­cluding the Zune and even many mobile phones. Just be sure to buy the "iTunes Plus" songs and not the Apple-only DRM tracks until the transition is finalized.

If you previously bought those restricted songs, you can upgrade them to open files at a cost of 30 cents per track or $3 per album. Apple says that all of its DRM-free AAC tracks are encoded at 256 kbps at a variable bit rate. Bit-for-bit, I tend to prefer the quality of AAC over MP3, but preferences vary. And while AAC is fairly universal, MP3 is still more-commonly supported.

The strong iTunes store interface is an easy pick if you use Apple's iPod or iPhone. Tracks have cost 99 cents until now, but the DRM-free change is adding 69-cent and $1.29 price points. Album pricing will also vary more; $9.99 will remain typical, however.

Rhapsody

Rhapsody uses a Web-only interface to browse its stock of 7 million songs. The service is still split between subscription and DRM-free MP3s, so surf the MP3 section for the DRM-free songs.

The weak interface mostly forces you to browse by searching. Aside from best-selling lists and a few front-page flourishes, you have few ways to bounce from a band you like to one you're missing. Worse, you have little power in resorting lists to view by price, alphabetically by musician, date re­­leased, or other factors. And sometimes when you do find music to buy, the store will sell albums only as 99-cent individual tracks, an annoying rate for many short songs. Album prices vary but are often about $10 or less.

Rhapsody's strong preview system lets you sample the full track before buying, even organizing a few as playlists. However, unless you buy the DRM-laden, unlimited service, you'll hear only 25 tracks each month. Its 256-kbps MP3 files have good quality, and you can download tracks as zip files if you don't want to install Rhapsody's utility. (If you do, purchased tracks are automatically added to iTunes, Windows Media Player, and other software.)

Amazon

While other services offer temporary discounts, Amazon's MP3 downloads store regularly offers quality music at sale prices. If you're frugal and fast, its daily deals deliver full albums for just a few dollars, weekend sales discount several albums to $5 each, and ongoing sales contain their own treasures. (Usual prices are typically about $9 for new music or less for older titles.)

This Web-based store triumphs in its organization. You can list by price, genre, and other standards, and Amazon's recommendation system bounces you to new songs you might like.

If you buy single tracks, you won't have to install additional software. Album purchases require Amazon's utility, but tracks merge into music libraries. Most music is encoded as 256-kbps MP3s. Music selection is aimed squarely at the mainstream, pop audience across its 7 million songs. Tracks cost about 79 to 99 cents.

eMusic

eMusic mixes DRM-free MP3 downloads with a subscription service. You pay a monthly fee to get a fixed number of tracks, and if you forget to download them all, they evaporate after each period. A few times, I've woken up in the middle of the night before the reset, remembered, and binged on new songs. And often, you'll end up with a few credits to spend one track at a time, instead of being able to buy a whole album. These annoyances are mostly offset by cheap prices. Depending on your monthly plan, songs could cost 25 cents each (on a 100-song, $25 plan).

the eMusic store sells all of its 5 million tracks as 192-kbps, variable-bit-rate MP3s. Casual listeners will be fine with this quality, though it's not as good as that of most competitors. And eMusic's catalog favors smaller, more independent record labels rather than the big companies. You'll find lots of indie rock, jazz, classical, and other great music that isn't on the top 40 charts. But if your favorite small band signs with a big label, its new albums may not appear on the site. (And sometimes old albums get yanked.)

Lots of editorial content helps subscribers navigate the lesser-known music. Top-selling and theme-based lists help beginners. Social networking features let you see what other, similar users or friends like. And eMusic includes frequent pointers between musicians, showing their influences, contemporaries, and followers.

Napster

Only the name remains the same from the old anything-goes, free-download days of music sharing. Napster now includes a choice between a DRM-restricted subscription and DRM-free MP3 downloads. (As with other subscriptions, the all-you-can-hear music goes away once you stop paying.) Look for the MP3 icon to be sure you're downloading the right songs.

A big catalog of 7 million MP3 tracks gives Napster a wide reach. Napster says that the "vast majority" of tracks are variable-bit-rate at 256kbps, while a "handful" are sold at 128kbps according to a spokesperson. (The shopping card says which one you'll get just before you make a purchase.)

The Web interface feels clunky and suited mostly to finding music you already want, not for making new discoveries. Optional software works slightly better, though the look is nearly the same. Worse, prices are hidden till you're almost ready to buy, making bargain hunting nearly impossible.

Zune

Before downloading from the Zune marketplace, you'll need Microsoft's Zune marketplace software, which is a stand-alone download, with or without the Zune music player. The tool serves mostly as a replacement for Windows Media Player, letting you rip your own tracks and transfer them to a Zune. But if you use a different MP3 device, the software plays nicely with WMP, using the same library.

The Zune marketplace catalog offers a mixture of DRM-free MP3 tracks alongside DRM-restricted songs, although Microsoft says that 90 percent of the music is sold as open MP3s. Unfortunately, I sometimes found instances of a single, restricted track on an otherwise open-MP3 album. Microsoft says it's working to completely get rid of those DRM restrictions as soon as possible, but it couldn't offer a time frame. Look for the MP3 icon to be sure you're buying the right music.

The 5 million music tracks cover most of the mainstream favorites. They usually cost 99 cents each, but you'll have to buy with Microsoft's points currency, common on the Xbox 360. (It's like Fun Dollars, only less fun.) Music is encoded at either 256 kbps for the major record labels or an impressive 320 kbps for the indie labels. The clear software even offers recommendations based on similar artists and your listening habits.

Most interesting to Zune users, Microsoft offers an all-you-can-download, monthly service with typical DRM restrictions for $15. (The music goes away after the service ends, and it requires a Zune for portable playback.) But each month, you get to download and keep ten DRM-free tracks as MP3s for use anywhere.

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