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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 (s aapl) 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 (s amzn) 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 (s msft) 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?

25 Responses to “Amazon, iTunes, Other? Where Do You Buy Your Digital Music?”

  1. Simon C.

    I use iTunes before but since i’m out of us for 3 months now I can’t buy there anymore. I hope that they put a music store on iTunes Philippines. I paid a lifetime membership fee at ares pro music for just $30 something and i can now buy any music, music video, movies, e-book, podcast for free as long as you pay your membership fee.

    for me, that’s not a problem because a have a lifetime membership fee.

    you should definitely try one.

  2. I use Spotify (when that comes to the US it is going to change everything!) which is just like having an iTunes Library with every song you could ever imagine in it. I find it’s only really useful to listen to catalogue stuff, but i like discovering new, edgy stuff. So, I use a combo of eMusic (90 downloads, been a subscriber for 3 years and could probably use three times that ammount every month) I also use the recommendations on

    My favourite new tip is to download an App called Peel and subscribe to a bunch of MP3 Blogs that fit your taste.

    I don’t think it’s as black/white as “Where do you buy your music”. Discovery and consumption is just as important.

  3. Tom …

    I loaded up in free AmazonMP3 songs last year during the PepsiStuff promotion … 5 codes got you song … On my walks with my wife and son we found caps and boxes, we also had family and friends give us caps … amongst free 2gb thumb drives I also net 100 songs. I’ve done the same kind if thing for various iTunes promotions. I also rip from CDs that I find at the flea market for $0.25 to $1.00 – trying to find “Best of …” “Greatest Hits” or “Complilations”.

    Last week Best Buy had 3 iTunes $10 cards for $25 … I’ve done similar deals with Staples and Radio Shack.

    Occasionally … I download from limewire and rip audio from YouTube videos.

    My local library also has a shared iTunes playlist and I can “rip” from that with Audio Hijack or rip from their 10,000 plus CDs in stock.

  4. I like to use (electronic music). A useful feature they have is you can stream all the songs you want to sample like an online radio station (for free, too!). itunes is my primary store for convenience but their 30 second sampling isn’t enough for me as I’m usually discovering new new music on a store, not going there because I know the title.

  5. dragaroo

    Gotta second Lala – it’s a fantastic service – full length previews and 10-cent song streaming if you’re on the fence can’t be beat. Interface works much better than Amazon imo, but I go back and forth – iTunes, Amaazon, Lala – based on what I’m looking for.

  6. I’ve been using AmazonMP3 since it began, switching over pretty much entirely from iTunes. I can’t think of even one time I’ve attempted to buy something, looked in both stores, and found that iTunes was cheaper. More often than not, in fact, Amazon’s prices are shockingly low. I actually resent when an album I want can’t be had for $6.99 or less now.

    I’ve never noticed a significant difference in the quality between Amazon MP3s and iTunes AACs, so that isn’t an issue. I’ve never opened a single liner notes PDF that came with an iTunes purchase. I still haven’t spent the nearly $100 required to convert my old iTunes purchases to the iTunes Plus files that everyone else gets to have now at no additional premium, and may never do so, considering that $100 for music I already own is equivalent to quite a few albums over at Amazon that I don’t.

    As for eMusic, I tried it once, but found very little of interest. Similarly Amiestreet was quite underground in terms of selection when I last checked. It’s not that I don’t like indie music (I am generally quite open to it). It’s just that I don’t have the time to spend sifting through online stores to find it.

  7. As soon as Amazon started selling MP3s I quit iTunes for good. Anyone who says Amazon’s interface is difficult to use is just daft. There’s a reason why they’re recession-proof, and after their sales last quarter, I really don’t think the interface is getting in anyone’s way. You can’t really beat the prices or the download speed, and I’ve never had a download crap out on me like they have on iTunes (no it’s not my connection either). New albums are for under $5.00 constantly and sometimes they’re $2.99! I could give a crap about liner notes and live bonus tracks, because I rarely read the notes unless I’m doing research, and largely don’t like listening to live music (I’d rather pay to go see a concert in person). I’m fine with iTunes for playing my music, but that’s it. I don’t buy anything from the iTunes store anymore, and I haven’t since the $0.30 upgrade fiasco. I really resent paying for something twice. I won’t even go into the movie/tv show thing with iTunes either.

  8. RealG

    I search through iTunes, buy exclusively from Amazon. I don’t care about the esthetique when I download a CD in under one minute. There is a big difference in price between iTunes and Amazon, especially for movies. I clearly don’t see the point to pay more money for the same service with iTunes. Although I love iTunes.

  9. BustersDad

    I tend to comparison shop between Amazon & iTunes for reasons very similar to yours — not necessarily audio quality but price. Amazon is missing a couple of features that I like in iTunes, particularly the “popularity” rating that shows which songs are being purchased. This is particularly helpful if I do not intend to purchase the whole album but one or two highlights. So I often shop in iTunes and then purchase in Amazon.

    The other reason I browse, and purchase, in Amazon is that they provide a lot of free and deeply discounted content. I have picked up great new releases for $4.99, with a heads up from the newsletter or Twitter. Amazon also provides hundreds of free tracks and lots of great label samplers. The “free on iTunes” section is a mere pittance compared to the number and quality of what is offered on Amazon. And that gets me over to Amazon, browsing and shopping.

  10. I tend to buy CD’s when I can find them for $9.99 for two reasons. First, I want the best sound quality I can get for the home system, and second I don’t want to be nickel and dimed every time the resolution at the stores goes up (i.e. an extra $.30 from iTunes to get rid of the DRM and increase the file quality).
    If there is a single song off an album I want then I tend to use either iTunes or Amazon, depending on price and the quality of the file. That was Amazon for a while but now iTunes looks to have a slight edge (the files look to be similar quality, so convenience wins). The only downside to buying the actual CD is figuring out where to store them.

  11. I was a member of eMusic during my one-month free trial, then got stuck with a second month I didn’t want and milked the heck out of it. When it was up, that was it for me and eMusic.

    Besides that, if the music I want is available on a used CD for less than the digital download, I buy it and rip it myself. If the music is free—whether I want it or not—I’ll download it from any legal site. If it’s superbly cheap on Amazon and I actually want it, I’ll download it there. Otherwise, it’s iTunes all the way, baby!

  12. Brian

    For classical music fans, there must be cataloguing and searching methods tailored to that genre. None of the sites mentioned are suitable for classical music. My first stop when I want to buy digital downloads is Deutsche Grammophon (, and sometimes I look into Naxos’ site ( A new service that looks promising is Classical Archives ( and I hope to try it soon. In general, though, I still buy CDs, at least until I find an affordable DAC. And to any vinyl zealot reading this, please don’t flame me.

  13. I would probably use Amazon more than iTunes…if it weren’t for the fact that I live in Canada, so I can’t use the Amazon MP3 Downloader. This is definitely something that needs to be changed so that Amazon can get international buyers.

  14. Fraser

    I’ve actually just finished my dissertation at university on this very subject, i found that Amie Street’s method of selling is by far the best around on the net, offers rewards for those who get there first! Highly recommended.

  15. Don’t forget ! You can find quite a range of music – very similar to the upstart feel of emusic. However the price of the music grows as does the demand. If you get on their newsletter, you can usually nab a brand new release for $2-4 before the purchase volume brings the price up to normal range. I’d suggest appending the site as a step #2 in the above process.

  16. Frank has some good sales since they’re trying to attract new users, and you can listen to the whole album once for free before you buy it.

  17. Gazoobee

    I should add that I don’t use eMusic for the same reason quoted (poor quality files), and that if my one source (iTunes) fails to have the album, it’s most likely not to be found anywhere else either so I go directly to the bands site (if they have one) and if it isn’t offered for sale there, I go LimeWire.

    I feel that if I tried to purchase it legally a couple of times and failed, that downloading it is more moral than what the music companies are doing anyway.

  18. Gazoobee

    iTunes only for me. Don’t like MP3’s if I can avoid them, and I don’t like Amazon in general. Ugly, impossible to use site with blinking ads everywhere.

    Also, Amazon only offers MP3’s in USA I think, so most of the world doesn’t have that as a choice.