Amazon's MP3 store: Better than iTunes

For the first time, there's real competition to Apple's online music shop.

Published September 26, 2007 6:30PM (EDT)

I love the iTunes Music Store. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the shop in the spring of 2003, I called it revolutionary, and who can argue that it's been anything but?

Still, iTunes has always seemed like a stopgap measure, something to tolerate until the music industry got its act together. I think of it, now, as a place to buy music that I like, but not a place to get music I love. If you love something you want a permanent copy, and music from iTunes is fundamentally ephemeral: Nearly everything you purchase from the store will never work on any device not made by Apple.

This week, Amazon launched a beta version of a music store that breaks this lock-in. All of Amazon's tracks are sold as unrestricted MP3s, free of Digital Rights Management, or DRM -- they will work on just about any music player in the world, including an iPod. The store marks iTunes' first real competition. In fact, I think it kicks iTunes' buttons.

First a quick comparison:

  • Song quality: Amazon's store sells MP3 tracks encoded at a 256 kbps variable bit rate, while most songs on iTunes are encoded as AAC files with a bit rate of 128 kbps. Audiophiles can argue forever on the merits of higher-bit MP3s versus lower-bit AACs, but in listening to the same song purchased from each store -- Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" -- I couldn't tell a difference.
  • Price: Most tracks on iTunes go for 99 cents, while full albums sell for $9.99. Amazon typically beats these prices -- most of its tracks are priced at $0.89, and albums are $8.99. And there are some really great deals: "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," Smashing Pumpkins' 1995 double album, is just $8.99, DRM-free, on Amazon. On iTunes it's $19.99.
  • Ease of use: iTunes is popular mainly because it's drop-dead simple. You buy a song with one click, and because it's integrated into your music player, you never have to fiddle with files on your hard drive to get the songs into your iPod. Amazon matches this performance. The store is on the Web, but after you download a small companion program -- works on Windows and Mac -- you can reproduce the same one-click experience you've come to love in Apple's store (the app automatically adds purchased files to iTunes or another favorite music player). Amazon's store also lets you search for and preview music just as easily as in iTunes.
  • Selection: With 6 million songs, iTunes is the clear winner; it has music from all major labels as well as a king's bounty of indies. Amazon has only 2 million tracks, with music provided by just two major labels -- EMI and Universal. Obviously, then, there are a lot of songs you'll find on iTunes that you won't find on Amazon. Of the top five songs on iTunes, two tracks -- the No. 1 song, Atlanta rapper Soulja Boy Tell 'Em's "Crank That," and "How Far We've Come" by Matchbox Twenty, which is No. 4 -- aren't on Amazon. But Amazon does seem to have a lot of top hits, and it even has some artists that iTunes doesn't have. For instance, you can buy each of Radiohead's albums on Amazon for just $8.99; not one is on iTunes.

From these specs the two seem evenly matched. But here's the main way Amazon runs circles around iTunes: Psychic well-being. I kid you not, shopping for digital music at Amazon simply feels better than shopping on iTunes. That's because everything is unrestricted. You don't have to consider where you're going to play the songs or if you plan to keep them for the long run. Everything just works, and it'll work forever -- or at least as long as music players still recognize the free, open standard of MP3s.

Most of the tracks on iTunes, meanwhile, are gummed up by Apple's copy-protection scheme, called FairPlay. Under these restrictions, you can put your songs on just five computers at a time; make only seven CD copies of a particular playlist; and, if you want to go mobile, the iPod and iPhone are your only option.

Apple's fans are going to write in to tell me two things: 1) iTunes also has some unrestricted tracks, and 2) it's not Apple's fault that it has to sell restricted music -- the recording industry wants it that way.

Yes and yes. Earlier this year Jobs penned a famous missive asking record companies to abolish DRM; considering that they already sell all their songs on CDs without restrictions, it didn't make any sense, he argued, for them to insist on DRM for downloads. Shortly afterward, EMI signed up to Jobs' plan, and now, in fact, you can buy unrestricted copies of EMI's music from the iTunes store.

But you pay extra for that privilege. Unrestricted tracks on iTunes -- what Apple calls iTunes Plus -- go for $1.29 each. At Amazon unlocked songs aren't an extra option. Freedom is a fundamental value of the store, and every song you see there is playable any way you like.

Amazon also has more unrestricted tracks than Apple. Universal Music Group -- which is feuding with Apple -- is providing DRM-free songs to Amazon and other online stores, but not to Apple. As David Kravets points out in Wired, Edgar Bronfman Jr., the chairman of Warner Music Group, recently expressed concerns about Apple's growing power in the music business; it seems that Bronfman might soon make Warner's music DRM-free as well.

Bully for him, bully for Amazon, and bully for competition, I say. As wonderful as it has been to see Apple change the music business -- and make no mistake, that's what it did; Amazon's store is only possible because Apple paved the way -- nobody benefits from a digital-music monopoly.

From now on when I look for music, I'm going to go to Amazon first. Only if I don't find something there will I think about buying from iTunes. If you value your freedom, I recommend you do the same. Take a look at Amazon's MP3 store here.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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