The iTunes Music Store has been gradually adding more independent music since its second-generation version was launched in October, 2003, but fans of such music have a new resource to turn to as well. It’s called
AudioLunchbox.com, and it launched last Halloween. Since then the indie-only online music download service has gone from 17,000 to almost 90,000 tracks and will expand even further in the next couple of months. MacCentral recently spoke with the company’s co-founder and CEO Morgan Harris to find out more.
AudioLunchbox.com works very differently than most other online services include the iTunes Music Store — that’s evident from the Web site, which is also the main interface for the service. The company has eschewed a custom application interface for a Web browser.
“We did it that way so it’s cross-platform,” Harris told MacCentral.
No Digital Rights Management, totally cross-platform
The service is compatible with Mac, Windows and Linux clients, and doesn’t encrypt files with any form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology — you’re free to do with your downloads what you wish: burn them to CD if you like, listen to them on your iPod or another MP3 player.
“We feel very strongly that our users should not be placed in digital handcuffs before they purchase anything from us,” Harris explained. “If people are going to steal music, DRM isn’t going to stop them, and it’s not a battle that I want to fight.”
As a result, each file on AudioLunchbox.com can be downloaded in either 192Kbps variable bit rate-encoded (VBR) MP3 files or in Ogg Vorbis Q6, an open source audio compression format. Ogg is supported on the Mac using an iTunes plug-in or through iTunes music player alternatives. Users have 24 hours from the time of their purchase to download the music; they can download either format in that time to see what sounds better, according to Harris.
The downloaded files don’t just include the music, either. You can also download cover art, lyrics, artist bios and liner notes when they’re available.
Each song can be previewed in 30-second bites; the way it’s set up now these files automatically open in whatever MP3 player you’ve chosen as your default. Harris said that the service will soon migrate to a Macromedia Flash-based content system to streamline that process.
Harris said the company plans to have more than 250,000 songs online within the next couple of months. The service already has deals in place with leading indie labels like Epitaph, Artemis and Koch — about 200 labels all told, with more coming on board all the time. Genres represented on the service range from rock, punk, electronic and alternative to jazz, classical, country, folk and gospel.
While the service handpicks the indie labels it works with, AudioLunchbox.com also encourages unsigned independent artists to sell their music as well. Payment of a $40 processing fee, signature on an artist agreement and an audio CD is all it takes to get your music online through AudioLunchbox.com. Unsigned indie artists get the same deal as indie labels — 65 percent of the revenue generated on their sales.
“Who are we to say, ‘this music sucks and can’t be on our site,'” said Harris. “People should be able to use [AudioLunchbox.com] as a platform for distribution.”
Pay to play
Similar to iTunes and other emerging music services, AudioLunchbox.com serves up individual singles for $0.99 and complete albums for $9.99. The only exceptions thus far have been EPs with relatively small numbers of tracks or double albums. Harris told MacCentral that AudioLunchbox.com hasn’t been plagued with any problems from artists insisting that the entire album be purchased rather than just singles, unlike iTunes and some other commercial services.
Users can purchase music using various credit cards or PayPal. While users can buy individual singles this way, Harris hopes that many will opt for the service’s “Lunch Card” program, which rewards shoppers with free music when they pre-pay a set amount.
“On a single 99 cent purchase we don’t make anything after the credit card fee,” he said. “But with a Lunch Card, people get free music.”
Buying a $25, $50 or $100 Lunch Card imposes a single credit card transaction for the service, thus lowering the cost of their sales. The Lunch Card provides that level of credit to the user, in the AudioLunchbox.com transaction processing system. $25 Lunch Card holders get three free tracks; $50 Lunch Card holders receive seven free tracks, and $100 Lunch Card holders receive 15 free tracks with their purchase.
Gift cards are also available if there’s an indie-loving music fan in your life, too.
Better exposure for indie labels, artists
Harris sees some faults with Apple’s implementation of independent music downloads.
“I love iTunes and I use it, and I’m a fan,” Harris said. “But the reason why iTunes doesn’t work for indies is because the content gets buried.”
To that end, AudioLunchbox.com features nothing but independent artists. And similarly to iTunes, users can search for music, organize by artist, genre, recent additions and more.
Recording labels in the indie music scene sometimes focus on specific genres or styles, and some indie music fans go by the label when they’re shopping for new music. AudioLunchbox.com’s solution was to create “Label Stores” for each indie label represented on the site — that way, customers can check out the brands they trust for new music.
More to come
AudioLunchbox.com plans the addition of a “Karma”-style rating system. Part of AudioLunchbox.com’s long-term community-building plans, the rating system will allow individual users to assign ratings to the music they buy. Other users will be able to scan reviews and take a look at what else the reviewer has bought. Harris hopes that in this way, AudioLunchbox.com users will get turned on to new music they might have missed otherwise.
A privately held company, AudioLunchbox.com is still keeping its cards close to its vest when it comes time to talk about customer numbers or revenue. Harris said that “feedback from users has been great.” Harris said that AudioLunchbox.com’s traffic has increased 50 to 75 percent each month since it went online last October.
“We’re very dedicated and focused to increasing the exposure of indie music,” Harris told MacCentral. “You will never find major label content on our site. If we ever were to do that, it would be a completely separate company.”