The Myth of the One-Stop Music Shop

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To listen anyone with an opinion about all the music download services out there—and that covers, what, 95 percent of the tech world?—you’d get the impression we were witnessing a real-life version of the old ’80s sci-fi flick Highlander : There Can Be Only One. One winner, that is.

Or to put it another way, either iTunes will continue to dominate the online music biz, or Napster or another service will eventually topple Apple.

I see it very differently. Right now I have accounts on three music download services I use regularly: iTunes Music Store, Beatport, and Audio Lunchbox. All three of them cater to very different clientele.

iTunes is great for commercial releases. There’s a regular supply of free music you can experiment with, a huge back-catalog of stuff, and an astounding depth and breadth of music. It’s simple to use, it’s easy, and it works. Home run, Apple. Sure, the music is encrypted using DRM, and I can only take on the road with me if I have an iPod—or if I’m willing to jump through silly hoops like burning it to disc and then re-ripping the burned tracks back to MP3 or unencrypted AAC.

That’s one spot where Beatport and Audio Lunchbox have Apple beat—neither of these services use DRM. That means that neither that has major label support, but because of their focuses, that’s not an impediment. And they’ve cleverly gone with Web-based interfaces, so there’s no client software you need to use to download and buy stuff. That also means multi-platform support, even for Linux users.

Beatport is all electronic and dance music. That’s a pretty specific niche. But that’s just it—it’s a niche. As broad as iTunes’ catalog is, it isn’t all encompassing. Beatport has a mind-bending array of trance, electronica, breaks, progressive house, drum & bass, and other stuff that may not mean too much to you unless you’re into dance music. But it’s a bit like going into the city and finding that little store on the corner that has crates and crates of white-label 12-inch vinyl stacked to the ceiling. The only people in there usually don’t rise until the afternoon because they’ve been spinning records until four the previous morning at a club someplace. Beatport isn’t cheap, compared to iTunes—tracks usually cost a buck and a half to two bucks—but it’s stuff you won’t find anywhere else. And the cost of amassing this catalog on vinyl would break you in no time. It’s a great value.

The other service I use, Audio Lunchbox, is all independent music. They’ve built an impressively diverse catalog—everything from hardcore punk to Native American, folk music to world music. While iTunes is a bit like wandering in to a Virgin Megastore, Audio Lunchbox is more like going to an indie record store—you won’t find a lot of the stuff you’ll get elsewhere, but you will find a lot of great music that will make the search rewarding. Another cool thing about Audio Lunchbox is that they sell their stuff in either MP3 or Ogg Vorbis—again, good for the Linux users out there.

Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal published a report that contends that, overall, coffee chain Starbucks has actually fostered the growth of independent coffee shops, rather than driven them out of business (though they note that there are a few specific examples of the opposite happening, as well). Likewise, I don’t see iTunes or Napster or MSN Music or any other “major label” music service as a threat to music distribution, and I don’t see them as the one answer all customers are looking for.

As long as services like AudioLunchbox, Beatport and others can build sustainable business models by catering to clientele that aren’t being served by these other online “superstores,” it helps to improve choice and drive further adoption of digital music. And that’s good for everyone.

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