Why online music fans will soon be glad all over


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May 24, 2005
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Why online music fans will soon be glad all over

Lower prices and more flexibility will add to the appeal of download sites

Good news for music fans. Not only is the cost of digitally downloaded music set to fall, but you will also soon be able to make better use of many of the files you download.

Cheaper tunes are on the way courtesy of the European Commission, which on Tuesday announced it would investigate iTunes, Apple's online music store.

The watchdog is concerned because, while iTunes is the market leading download site in most of Europe, users in the UK pay around 18 per cent more for each track - typically 79p - than those in the Eurozone, where the usual price is 99c. The Commission also thinks that people in one country should be allowed to buy music from iTunes stores elsewhere, which Apple currently prohibits.

This week's second piece of positive news for music fans is a joint announcement from iTunes and the record label EMI, whose artists include stars such as Robbie Williams, Coldplay and The Beatles. The two digital music giants are to begin offering customers the option of paying a higher price for music that comes without digital rights management (DRM) software.

This computer code is supposed to prevent piracy but can also be a major irritation for music fans who want to listen to their downloads on different devices at different times.

The net effect of both these developments is that it may not be long before music from all download sites is compatible with all portable players and more easily movable between computers. If prices come down too, music fans will be even better off. For now, however, buying music online is not simply a question of finding the cheapest supplier of the tracks and albums you want.

As the table (below) shows, different sites supply music files in different formats, so you need to be sure that what you get is compatible with whatever device you want to play it on. In particular, not all MP3 players, or similar devices, support all formats - check what yours will play before you buy.

As part of this process, music fans also need to understand whether what they're buying has DRM software attached - and what type. The code is used in different ways by record labels and music download sites. And most independent record labels don't bother with the software at all, preferring to allow listeners to do what they want with downloads they have paid for legally.

The big record labels, however, tend to use DRM software to restrict the devices to which their music can be copied. You might be able to copy music to your home PC and a single MP3 player, for example, but not to CD or any other players.

At Apple's iTunes online music store, DRM software currently prevents people playing downloads on any music player other than Apple iPods. Napster uses a different model - it has a monthly subscription service that gives users unlimited access to songs, but DRM software prevents you playing this music at all once your subscription lapses.

If it's a record label's DRM software that worries you, EMI's initiative should offer access to software-free downloads on most sites from next month, with single tracks priced at 99p. But other labels have yet to follow its lead and you will still face other forms of the piracy software.

One option is to circumvent the software, which is relatively straightforward for computer-literate music fans. There are plenty of internet sites - many offering free software - that offer advice on how to turn files downloaded from iTunes, say, into formats that can be played on devices other than the iPod.

Strictly speaking, you may be infringing copyright law by changing the format of music you've downloaded. But it's extremely unlikely that a record label or download site would ever take you for task for doing so, just as no one has ever been prosecuted for transferring CD music onto their computers, which is also technically unlawful.

If the whole issue of DRM doesn't bother you at all, you still need to seek out the cheapest supplier of the type of downloads you want and ensure that the files are compatible with your players.

The table (below opposite) gives a snapshot of the prices charged by the leading online music retailers. Crucially, though, it only includes sites that operate legally within the UK. There are several unlawful operators that undercut these prices very significantly - AllofMP3.com, the Russian company, is the most notable.

If you choose to use these sites, however, you're supporting an illegal operator. You'll have no comeback if you encounter quality issues and no rights of any kind.

Don't believe these sites' claims that they are legal. AllofMP3.com, for example, repeatedly argues that it is not breaking the rules because it pays royalties to a Russian music organisation. But at best that would only cover sales in the Russian market.

"There is absolutely no doubt that AllofMP3.com is operating illegally," says a spokesman for the British Phonographic Institute (BPI), which represents about 400 music labels in the UK, including the big four - Sony BMG, EMI, Universal and Warner. "This site is about as legal as someone selling fake CDs on the street corner."

However, closing AllofMP3.com down is proving difficult. The BPI announced last year that it would take legal action against the site. But so far it has been unable to penetrate the Russian legal system in a way that poses a serious threat to AllofMP3.com and the company continues to operate - seemingly with impunity - in the UK.

The BPI continues to operate on the principle that it wants to take action against AllofMP3.com, rather than music fans who buy from the site. What that means in practice is that if you use the site in order to save money, you're almost certain not to face legal problems. But make no mistake - you will be breaking the law.

The sound of tills ringing: what music costs online

* Broadly speaking, most legal music download services now charge similar prices. But there are two different models in operation. Most sites charge you a fixed price to download each single or album. But Napster and Wippit also offer subscription services.

* At Napster, there are two services. For a premium of £9.95 a month, you are entitled to download and listen to as much music as you want on your PC; for £12.95 a month, you can subscribe to Napster To Go, which enables you to transfer files onto a portable device such as an MP3 player. At Wippit, the lower monthly fee only gives you free access to some tracks - for others, where Wippit doesn't have the full licensing rights, there may be additional fees to pay.

* The advantage of the Napster model is that music fans can download as much as they want without worrying about the cost. This can be particularly useful for trying out bands you don't know - if you don't like the music, simply delete it. The drawback, however, is that you can only continue to listen to Napster downloads for as long as you subscribe to the service, though this is not the case with downloads from Wippit.

* If you prefer to pay for each download separately, it's worth shopping around between the different sites. The table (below opposite) gives an idea of what the sites were typically charging for singles and albums this week, but prices for different acts do vary. You may find some bands cheaper on certain sites - and all of the sites run special offers and sales from time to time.

* Bignoisemusic is worth a particular mention because it is linked to Oxfam. The charity gets 10p of each £1 spent through its site, but its prices remain competitive, so there is no real premium to pay for supporting a good cause while you download.

David Prosser
Published: 07 April 2007
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited