Buying Music Online

I’ve been fiddling around with iTunes for Windows for the last couple of days, and not entirely surprisingly, I like it quite a bit; it’s well-designed both functionally and esthetically, downloading’s a snap (I downloaded a Sarah McLachlan EP and the Jeff Beck-Rod Stewart version of “People Get Ready”), and as a player it handles most of the music I own just fine; it doesn’t seem to want to play nice with the few .wma files I have, but this is not exactly surprising. I would prefer to download mp3s over the aac format, but I can live with the need for digital rights management, and as nearly all my music listening these days is done from my computers anyway, this is not an onerous thing. It does at this point marginally lock me in to the iTunes player as the music player on my system, since my other music players don’t support aac files, but I imagine that will change over time.

It does have me lusting for an iPod to replace my years-old Creative Nomad Jukebox (yes! That’s right! I was hauling around thousands of tunes before any of you Mac dweebs! Choke on it!) and of course that’s Apple’s plan. It’s like the reverse of “Cheap razor, expensive blades” business model — Apple sells the music as a back door for selling the iPod, which is rapidly becoming the company’s gravy train. I can live with that, of course. I’m not in any great rush to ditch my Windows box, which regardless of what the Macsters say is still a rather more useful platform for all the things I need/want to do than the Mac, but I won’t mind dropping a couple hundred bucks for an iPod, which continues to be the best portable music player around.

With the addition of iTunes, I’ve pretty much come to a workable solution for all my online music listening and purchasing needs. It works across several music services and isn’t exactly efficient, but it’s not so inefficient that it’s a burden, and satisfies my need and desire to make sure musicians and copyright holders get paid, while at the same time allowing me to sample new music. Here’s how it breaks down:

* iTunes for purchasing music from new musicians and living musicians whose music I have not already purchased in some other format. Apple has agreements with all the major music companies, 200 minor labels and a distribution deal with CDBaby, which distributes music from indie musicians themselves. Overall, my musical bases are largely covered. I happen to think $1/song and $10/album is a workable price point which makes sure everyone gets paid, so I’m happy to pay it in the cases noted above. I do like that Apple does make room for indies in their formulation, since I am very pro-indie and typically speaking more of my money in an indie purchase goes to the musician. But I’m not militant anti-RIAA either, and don’t have issue tossing major music labels a little cash as well. The one other advantage of iTunes is that it doesn’t charge a per-month fee for access; when it comes to buying tunes, ala carte is the way to go

* Rhapsody to listen to new albums and existing albums/artists I may want to listen to from time to time but am not in a rush to buy. Rhapsody, in my opinion, is very close to the ideal of the “celestial jukebox,” in which you pay a modest fee to listen to everything ever recorded by man. While Rhapsody’s holdings aren’t quite that comprehensive (it lacks a lot of indie labels) it does allow me the luxury to listen to music I can’t find on the radio and probably wouldn’t purchase on blind faith alone. And thanks to the monthly fee, artists and copyright holders do get some renumeration for lending their music to me, and again, I think that’s totally fair. The benefit of this model is that when I do find music I like, I buy it — the most obvious recent example of this is Fever to Tell, the album from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which I purchased in CD form after hearing it on Rhapsody. Rhapsody does have an option for buying music: For 79 cents you can burn most of the tracks to CD on your computer — but not download them, which seems silly. I think Rhapsody will probably have a downloadable option in the future and depending on its DRM and format variables, I may just go ahead and purchase tunes from them as well, but in the meantime, the $10 a month I spend for the streaming service is money well-spent for me.

* for music I already own in non-digital form and/or dead artists and/or catalog music from artists richer than God. is a Russian online music service that has reached agreements with Russian music copyright holders to distribute music online, and offers a truly fabulous deal: 1000 downloads (in DRM-free MP3s or any number of other formats) a month for $15. I don’t imagine that the RIAA will be pleased such a service exists or that non-Russians can access it, but as far as I can tell it’s all fine and legal and is no different than if I flew to Russia, bought all those CDs, and flew back home (indeed, given how rampant piracy is in Russia and other former Soviet Bloc countries, this is probably a great deal more remunerative to the copyright holders than if I bought a CD in Red Square). In any event, if RIAA has a problem, they’ll want to take it up with, not me.

Be that as it may, my personal sense of ethics applies here. I’m perfectly happy, say, to download Man at Work’s “Overkill” from because I bought Cargo, the album from which the song is derived, back when I was in junior high. I already own it. Columbia Records and MAW got US-level royalties from me once; they can live with Russian-level royalties from me this time around. Likewise, I’m not going to get all teary-eyed about paying Russian-level royalties for Roy Orbison songs because Ol’ Roy’s long dead. He doesn’t need the cash. Finally, Sting may want me to pay full price for that song I downloaded off of Mercury Rising, but the Stinglemeister is, according to the 60 Minutes II report I watched the other week, worth $300 million and doesn’t go anywhere without his personal chef. So he’s not scrounging for that next meal. For an older song, it won’t kill him to get the Russian royalty.

Now, for Sting’s new album, I’ll cheerfully pay full price American. For artists that are starting out, or in the swing of their career, full American royalties are also the order of the day — I’d feel like a dirtbag nicking the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ off some Russian site, or nicking Sarah McLachlan’s Mirrorball or Surfacing, which are “older” albums but which are still an ongoing concern for her as an artist. Likewise, I’m all about paying fully for relatively obscure but long-running-career musicians; Tanya Donnelly, Julie Miller and Edie Reader need every dollar they get, and I’m pleased to give mine to them. Basically, if it’s new or relatively recent, I’m in for full price American. I can afford it, I’m happy to pay it, and I think everyone should feel the same way.

As I noted before, the RIAA may not be pleased with this personal formulation for royalty distribution. But I guess my feeling is that while I have a moral and legal obligation to pay for music, if the market allows me the ability to impose my own moral and financial value system on these purchases, I’d be foolish not to do so. The Internet has now pretty much made it possible for me to pay exactly what I feel I should pay for music in nearly every circumstance.

I’m good with that, as at this point the alternative for me not paying what I want to pay is not to buy music. Which does ask the question of whether under certain circumstances it’s better to get Russian royalties than no royalites at all. It’s a ponderer, all right.

Update, 10/20: Totally friggin’ hilarious Penny Arcade today on the angst Windows users and/or Mac mockers feel about enjoying iTunes. I don’t have the hang-up (I’m an apostate Mac user, in that I started on the Mac and then moved to the dark side), but I can sympathize.

2 Comments on “Buying Music Online”

  1. iTunes for Windows and the Experience

    Now that everyone has commented on iTunes for Windows and Microsoft’s reactionary statements, I figured I’d take a stab at…

  2. iTunes for Windows and the Experience

    Now that everyone has commented on iTunes for Windows and Microsoft’s reactionary statements, I figured I’d take a stab at…

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