BuyMusic.com — a Review
So, being that I’m not a member of the Mac tribe, and am unlikely to become so anytime soon, I was thrilled that Buy.com has started BuyMusic.com today. It’s an iTunes-like service which features something on the order of 300,000 downloadable songs, all available for those of us of the Windows persuasion — indeed, since the files are all in the Windows Media format, it’s not available to Mac users at all (they already have iTunes, so they’re probably not crying). You can download individual tracks for prices ranging from 79 cents to 99 cents, and albums starting at $7.99, although newer albums get into the $12.99 range and above, which is probably indicative of the music companies’ desire for you to go out and actually buy the disc. Like iTunes, you don’t need to subscribe — you can buy stuff a la carte. So I did.
My initial impressions are that the service is adequate-to-good with a lot of space to improve. To begin with, I found the restrictions on the site kind of annoying for me specifically: BuyMusic.com can only be accessed with Microsoft’s IE browser. Since my default browser is Mozilla’s Firebird, this is something of a hassle, but this is probably not an issue for the 96% of you who use IE as your default browser.
My second problem is that for some reason BuyMusic.com is under the impression that my IP address is from out of the country, which it is not, unless Ohio seceded from the rest of the US overnight. I suspect this has something to do with my satellite modem. But as BuyMusic.com does not allow people from outside the US and Canada to download music, the site wouldn’t let me buy anything initially. My workaround for this was to connect with my dial-up AOL connection through the purchasing process, thereby providing the site with a onshore IP address, and then switch off AOL when I came to the download page in order to use the broadband connection I have through the satellite. It’s pointless and stupid, but isn’t that just life for you. I’d be interested to know if any other satellite and/or broadband users have the same problem.
BuyMusic.com’s music selection is interestingly spotty, although that’s not entirely unexpected at this point. The selections are largely confined to major labels for now, and many of the major artists aren’t represented, or if they are, it’s just some of their work. U2, for example, is limited to their last full album (All That You Can’t Leave Behind) and their “Greatest Hits” collections; there are no tracks from the Beatles or the Stones. Obscure bands are likewise somewhat randomly represented: Spandau Ballet and Haircut 100, for example, get only a track of an 80s compilation, whereas the equally one-hiterrific When in Rome has an entire album for download. At this point it’s hit and miss as to what you’ll find.
Rather more of a drawback is that some albums advertised for sale either aren’t downloadable as full albums (only selected tracks available for download) or aren’t downloadable at all. I purchased Depeche Mode’s 81-85 singles collection for download and wasn’t provided any download page at all. This is a real big issue, obviously; nothing’s going to irritate customers more than paying for an album that they then can’t download (I sent a note to the help desk, which theoretically at least will deal with the issue within one working day. We’ll see).
Each .wma file is encoded at 128Kbps, which presumably provides CD equivalent quality music, although I found the music replication to be variable, even within albums themselves. For example, Barenaked Ladies’ “The Old Apartment” for their greatest hits package sounds just peachy, but “Pinch Me,” from the same album, sounds statically sibilant in that way that .wma files often do (.wma files in my experience have a real problem with higher frequencies).
Each track also has varying amounts of digital rights management restrictions encoded into them, relating to the number of computers the file can be downloaded onto, how many transfers to portable players it allows, and how many times the track can be burned onto a CD. Newer tracks typically more restricted than older tracks: “Woman in Chains,” a 12-year-old track from Tears for Fears that I downloaded, for example, offers unlimited burning and transfers, but can only be downloaded onto one computer; the Barenaked Ladies album tracks allow you to download them onto three computers and make unlimited file transfers, but you can only burn the track to CD three times. Clearly these restrictions are of nominal concern to anyone with minimal technical knowledge and/or a desire to burn the track more than the number of allotted times, but it serves the purpose of keeping casual listeners tied down, and that’s fine.
The download process itself is pretty simple (it’s like downloading any software from the net), although when you download an entire album, you have to download it track by track instead of having an option to have the whole thing downloaded as one file. This is a kind of work-intensive, especially if the album has a lot of tracks (the Barenaked Ladies disc had 19 tracks).
I thought the design of the BuyMusic.com site itself was pretty kludgy, in that it’s not at all easy to do any real browsing for tracks. If you’ve got a specific band or track in mind, the search function finds it (if it’s there), but otherwise it’s a hard slog through lots of screen to find interesting stuff.
Right out of the gate, I give BuyMusic.com a C all the way around: The music collection is adequate but could be larger and definitely needs indie artists, the UI is tolerable but needs improvement, and the music files themselves are generally okay but of inconsistent quality. The good news here is that I suspect this is only the first such store for Windows users: iTunes will have a Windows version later, and if Amazon, et al., don’t start doing this stuff soon, I’ll eat my hat. In the meantime, this is a serviceable but not spectacular way to do the right thing and actually pay for music online.