Amazon, iTunes, Other? Where Do You Buy Your Digital Music?


I know some people who’ve settled on one source for digital music purchases. (I also have a friend who buys CDs and rips them himself, but that’s another topic.) This made me wonder what the buying habits of our readers are. I’m curious as to how many people pretty much limit themselves to one source vs. how many of you “shop around” before you buy.

Regarding the iTunes Store, obviously a big advantage is iTunes integration. You’re in your music library, and with just a click, you’re in the store. Do a quick search, click a button or two, and the music is yours. Further, the music is automatically placed in your iTunes library, with album art. It’s all so seamless and easy that I certainly understand the attraction. All other thing being equal, it could be a powerful tie-breaker.

However, getting music into iTunes via other methods is almost trivially easy. Amazon does it best. Its download app makes it as seamless as the iTunes Store. You make you purchase from Amazon, and the files are downloaded and automatically appear in your iTunes library. It’s very slick and works every time.

Even without a slick downloader, all it takes to put music into iTunes is a simple drag and drop. Download the files from wherever onto your Mac or PC, and then just drag them onto the iTunes library. Not only does iTunes add them to the library, it even grabs the album artwork for you.

While I agree the iTunes Store’s integration is a nice advantage, I’m not willing to pay a lot of extra money for if I don’t have to. What follows is my usual process for making a music purchase.

First Stop: eMusic

If the music I want is on eMusic, I get it there. However, since eMusic is almost completely indie labels and artists, it’s not uncommon for what I want to be unavailable.

The main disadvantage of eMusic is that it’s a flat $10 a month, for which I get 40 downloads. (It’s now 30, but I signed up over two years ago when it was 40.) If you don’t use the downloads you lose them. I listen to a lot of stuff, and usually have no issue getting 40 a month, but many people probably would.

Another disadvantage of eMusic is that the files don’t have the appeal they did when I joined. File quality is 192K VBR LAME encoding, and they’re DRM-free. Over two years ago that was way ahead of the game, but now it’s the worst of the bunch. Amazon is MP3 256K; iTunes is an even better AAC 256K, and both are also DRM-free.

In short, eMusic is not the amazing value proposition it once was. Still, if you can average three albums a month for your $10, it remains a good buy.

Next Stops: Amazon and iTunes

The next stop for me isn’t Amazon or iTunes — it’s both. I have to see what each is offering to make a decision.

Price is obviously a factor; if there’s a large price delta for the same album, I’ll get the least expensive. For example, I just snapped up Green Day’s new album 21st Century Breakdown on Amazon for $4.99. It even included an “exclusive” live track. iTunes, for its part, had two extra tracks and a PDF booklet, which is great, but it was $14.99. And without the two bonus tracks, they wanted $11.99. Sorry, iTunes, Amazon wins this round, hands down. Amazon tends to have more sales, but iTunes frequently has bargains as well. If either one can save me a couple bucks or more, that’s generally where I’ll buy.

Content is another factor. Amazon seems to do less of this than iTunes, but when an album comes with PDF liner notes, extra songs, etc., that could sway me. I’m old school, and actually read liner notes. As for extra content, sometimes I find an extra song is one of the better ones on an album. It’s all about the music, and if an artist I like is tossing in one or more extra song, then I’m interested, though not for the kind of price difference I just mentioned above.

What if it’s a “tie” (i.e., cost is essentially the same and neither site has special content)? In that case I tend to go with iTunes. I believe Apple is the primary reason we have the Amazon MP3 store as we know it, and I reward it for that. Sure, Apple started the iTunes Store mainly because it wanted to ensure music was available for the iPod (i.e., not just available with Windows Media DRM), but the way it changed the industry is no worse off for that. Fear of iTunes’ “power” is what prompted the labels to stake Amazon with DRM-free music in the first place. Apple shook things up, so I give the company its due.

Besides, if price is not an issue, I’d rather have AAC files anyway. We could debate their sonic benefits all day (I’m not going there), but if nothing else, it’s irrefutable that AAC files are smaller than their MP3 counterparts. Since I like higher quality encoding rates, I’ll take all the size relief I can get.

Only One Store?

In the digital age, I’m not sure why anyone would hit just one store to get their music. I didn’t even shop that way in the “old days,” when going to three places meant driving around. But nowadays, when you can visit multiple stores and check what’s available in maybe 30 seconds, why limit yourself to just one?


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