Music Download Services Compared

Copycats.

That’s all we humans are.

Every time someone figures out a successful formula, the market floods with wannabes hoping to surf the slipstream all the way to the bank. Think of the current avalanche of reality shows, or lingerie-clad former-Mouseketeer pop stars or dot com venture capital firms. Think of low-carb diets, animated sitcoms, or politicians who pander to special interests in exchange for votes. And, these days, add music download services to that long line of bandwagons everyone’s jumping on.

When Apple finally decoded the music download formula — $0.99/song, $9.95/album — and made downloading music legit, they opened yet one more set of pop culture floodgates. Sure, brick-and-mortar music stores were already starting down the sad path of roller rinks, full-service gas stations, and boy bands, but these days everyone and their mother appears to be trying to get in on the online music download action. Hell — even Wal-mart is in the game.

So what sets one online music store apart from another? On the surface, the answer is: not much. All offer per-song downloads for around a buck, albums for around ten. The least imaginative among them simply cut a few pennies off the per-song price tag, and call that differentiation. Others are innovating themselves into the game by developing community features and — most importantly — new ways for users to discover music they’d otherwise never hear.

So, what does each of the current download services have to say for itself? To find out, we dropped ‘em each a line and asked them about their strengths, their philosophies, and where they see the music market headed. Here’s what they had to say:

iTunes Music Store

As the 800 lb gorilla in the music download world, Apple’s iTunes Music Store’s goals are — as one would expect — far from modest: “iPod and iTunes together change your relationship to music entirely,” says iTunes Director of Product Marketing Chris Bell. “Both how you interact with your existing collection and how you discover new music.”

Assuming your portable music player is an iPod, of course. Bell is quick to point out the iPod remains the number one player, despite increasing competition. In addition, he says, “iTunes stands alone with 70% of the download music market.”

iTunes seamless integration with the iPod is both a strength and a weakness. Bell boasts iTunes ease of use as a standout feature, and that ease is largely due to the fact that the device and the software are designed for each other. Competing services, however, are quick to point out that their services allow you to use any digital music player you choose.

Bell also cites convenient 1-click ordering and iTunes enormous legal download catalog, featuring over one million tracks and 8,000 audiobooks as features that keep it ahead of the pack. In addition, iMix compilations allow you to create online mixes and send them to others, or download mixes created by others, including celebrities like The Donnas and Michael Moore or Elvis Costello. Finally, Apple boasts that the iTunes library includes both digital exclusives, meaning songs that, while available elsewhere in the physical world, are only available online from iTunes Music Store, and iTunes exclusives, which are songs that are only available from iTunes, period.

“Most People in the world are still buying CDs,” says Bell. “But legal digital downloading has exploded with the launch of iTunes. The market is still discovering the benefits and convenience of downloading music from the iTunes Music Store.”

MSN Music Service

“MSN Music’s biggest strength is that it makes it easy for people to find and download the music they love,” says P. Kevin Horn, MSN Product Manager. MSN Music’s twist is that it is integrated with MSN Radio, which lets people purchase music directly off the radio. It also presents playlists, free streams of newly released music, and recommendations for new music.

“MSN Music also has editorial features aimed at helping people discover new music, such as Senior Year Hits, a nostalgic reminder of the top songs from their high school years, and Map of Music, an interesting presentation of the top artists in various cities during each of the last four decades, allowing people to go deeper into musical movements like Seattle in the 90s, Atlanta in the 80s, New York in 70s, and San Francisco in the 60s,” says Horn.

MSN claims that because of their long-standing relationships with the labels on the MSN Entertainment site, MSN Music offers not only a music store, but a complete music resource which allows you to purchase tickets, browse artists’ lyrics and videos, and more.

Like many of the services, they tout the fact that they offer consumers a choice — not only in music, but also in what device they ultimately use to listen to that music. Because they use the WMA format, their files are compatible with over 70 different MP3 players.

“Lastly, MSN Music has superior sound quality,” says Horn. “MSN Music digitally encodes tracks using Windows Media variable bitrate encoding, with an average bitrate of 160kbps and a peak bitrate of 256 kbps. That means we’re offering the industry’s highest fidelity audio in a compact file size.”

MusicMatch Music Store

“The MusicMatch Music Store is integrated into a full-service jukebox,” says Shamal Ranasinghe, MusicMatch’s Director of Product Management. “That gives our users one central place to interact with their music in any way they want to — whether that’s listening, discovering, buying, organizing, ripping, burning or transferring to portables.”

“This fully integrated experience provides a seamless way to create playlists with tracks from different sources — whether from purchased tracks from the Music Store, saved tracks from our On Demand service, or tracks that you rip from your own CDs,” says Ranasinghe.

Like MSN Music, Musicmatch users can buy tracks while listening to Musicmatch Radio. Also like MSN, Musicmatch downloads are distributed in 160 kbps WMA files, which means that they can be played on many of today’s digital music players.

Musicmatch Music Store includes some innovative features to help users find music that matches their tastes. Subscribers get personalized daily track and album recommendations based on their music preferences, and Ranasinghe claims “this personalization is extremely accurate, as it’s based on music relationships obtained from the more than 30 million unique play events that uploaded to Musicmatch each day from users. The end result is a highly personalized experience that makes Musicmatch the easiest way to discover new music in the industry.”

“As music users instantly gain access to potentially millions of tracks, Ranasinghe says, “personalization becomes even more important for finding music that appeals to your tastes. This is where Musicmatch excels. With no action required by the user, Musicmatch logs what is played and continually fine tunes each personalized music recommendation.”

Microsoft doesn’t make a habit of discussing future technologies, but Ranasinghe hints at things to come. “One example is Microsoft’s Janus technology for transferring streaming music subscription content to portable devices. Early next year, customers will have access to their Musicmatch On Demand tracks through a range of portable devices.” However, he adds, “we will introduce this new service at the right time — when customers are ensured an extremely high quality experience with access to a complete catalog of music.”

As for the future of the music download market, Ranasinghe is focused on perfecting a subscription model, similar to Napster’s. “Once people begin to see the value of having the universe of music available for less than the price of a CD a month, we expect music subscription services to really take off,” he says.

Napster

“Napster is about the music, and about choice,” says Napster President Brad Duea. “We’re not in the business of pushing hardware or a proprietary system, we’re about creating the best music experience possible.”

Napster’s focus is on developing their subscription-based model. “We think subscriptions are the ideal model for consumers,” says Duea. “For $9.95 a month, you get access to over a million tracks, and you can stream them, you can download them to three PCs and even listen to them offline, and as part of that subscription you have access to radio, billboard charts, and many other features. It’s a great way to connect with your favorites, but also discover new songs.”

In addition, Napster offers Napster Light, which allows you to access the Napster music catalog without signing up or paying the monthly fee. The difference is that, while the subscription version of Napster allows you to download and listen to full songs as long as you keep paying the monthly fee — you only need to purchase songs you want to burn to CD or transfer to a portable music player — like the iTunes Music Store, Napster Light offers 30-second samples of songs and the opportunity to purchase and download the ones you like.

Napster is much more than a download store,” says Duea. “Our competitors offer 30 second samples, and you need to decide if you want to download a song based on that. With Napster, for $9.95 a month, you get unlimited, full-length, on-demand listening to those million songs. So you can listen to the full songs, find out what you like, then listen to it again or download it to your PC hard drive. So you’re able to discover music more than any other download store. As long as your subscription is active, you get to access those million tracks as if they were your own. If you cancel your subscription, however, you’ll eventually be denied access and only get the 30 second previews again.”

“From a discovery point of view,” says Duea, “you can actually, as part of your subscription, discover far more music than you ever could have, and we provide numerous ways to do that. Our recommendations actually recommend other tracks you may like based on the band or the track you searched for, or you can go into our interactive radio, where we cue up playlists of over 200 songs for you, and if you like a song you can just download it to your PC hard drive with one click.”

Wal-Mart Music Downloads

Wal-Mart’s main strength is its low price. “Songs are only $0.88 across our entire catalog, and albums are only $9.44,” says Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amy Colella. In addition, she says, “Wal-Mart offers a wide selection of exclusives across all music genres, with a strong selection in Country. Currently, our service is the only digital provider of Tim McGraw’s top selling album Live Like You Were Dying. Also, we have great exclusives from Alabama, Randy Travis, and Brooks and Dunn.”

Colella stresses that Wal-Mart Music Downloads philosophy is to combine value, through low-priced songs and albums, with Wal-Mart’s reputation as a trusted place to shop. “We continue to offer every day low prices, so customers receive the same music at a lower price,” she says.

Sony Connect Music Store

“We believe that this market is still in its infancy, and at this point we see our key competition as the pirate sites that distribute music illegally,” says Lisa Gephardt, Senior Director of Communications for Sony USA. “We are constantly looking for ways to make it easier for music fans to purchase music legally rather than download it illegally.”

In addition, “we have a large selection of exclusive content as well as independent music labels, and our store is compatible with a wide range of devices priced to suit any lifestyle,” says Gephardt.

Gephardt says Sony is continuing to add new features to their service. “For example,” she says, “it the most recent upgrade, we have added Mood Logic, which creates a new digital music experience for the user by recommending new music based on their current preferences.”

Sony also sees marketing partnerships as an important part of their strategy for getting the word out. Recently, they’ve partnered with United and McDonald’s to offer downloaded music as part of promotional offers. “We’re always looking for new and creative ways for fans to access their favorite music legally,” says Gephardt.

eMusic

Rather than set itself apart primarily based on price or features, eMusic sees its unique angle in the types of music it offers. “Our focus is on independent and non-mainstream music that is often ignored by radio and other commodity digital music services,” says David Pakman, eMusic’s Chief Operating Officer. Also, he touts “universal compatibility with MP3 format and no DRM restrictions” as main selling points.

Pakman sees eMusic as “a service focusing on those music fans interested in something other than the mainstream,” and hopes that’s how they’ll be perceived in the marketplace. In addition, he says that while universal compatibility with digital music players is important, so is focus and differentiation.”

Vive la difference?

In a world filled with corporate-controlled, formulaic radio stations, music download services promise to become a real way for people to discover not only new artists, but also new — and old — types of music. Which is to say, despite all the copycats and also-rans, there may still be hope for us humans yet.

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