Embracing Obsolescence

Free and Low Cost Online Music Services with No DRM

- 2006.04.21

Welcome back for another installment in our quest to transform an older Mac into a digital audio jukebox. So far we've looked at software for both playing and decoding digital audio, in addition to the different codecs available for such tasks.

While I have touched a little on the various Macs suitable for the task, my focus remains on my Power Macs 7600. No, the CD-ROM drive is still broken. Yes, I have a few feelers for finally getting a replacement. Yes, I know the Low End Mac Swap list is a great place to find a replacement. No, I haven't taken time to do much since the swap list moved to Google Groups, but I plan on making time to trade for some parts.

More hardware tips will come in a future installment. Today we're still focusing on acquiring music to listen to on our jukebox. Last time we discussed transferring music you already own; today begins our adventure with the Internet's various audio outlets. I'll present four such sources of music; a pair of free sites and a pair of commercial sites.

Two quick notes. While, the focus is on downloadable content, we won't completely abandon streaming outlets. Since my connection is slow - dialup - I can slowly work through a download. Streaming, on the other hand, tends to be more difficult because of my limited bandwidth.

Secondly, all the outlets I recommend today for digital audio are thankfully free of digital rights (or restrictions, if one prefers) management (DRM). While I initially intended to add a little rant in regards to the difficulties of jumping through hoops in DRM's evil circus, instead I will take a more rational tack in a subsequent companion piece. I don't want to dilute this article too much with just any odd tangent.

Now, on we go.

Lacking a better categorization system, I'll list the sites alphabetically.

Amazon

Yes, that Amazon, the one that sells just about any commodity you can buy online.

Amazon provides a weird scattershot of free downloads from a variety of artists. All the music I've downloaded from Amazon's free download section has been 128 kbps MP3 files. Quality is certainly respectable for free music, although selection is hit or miss. If you're seeking a particular tune or artist, you may or may not find what you desire. Typically, for any given featured artist, there are one or two downloads available from a particular album.

Another caveat, however small: You have to be an Amazon customer to download music from Amazon's free downloads. I figure Amazon provides the free music download service to better entice customers into purchasing full quality CDs and/or digital music players. Both are advertised on the various pages pertaining to Amazon free downloads.

Thankfully, anyone can stream the 30 second sound clip, an M3U (essentially a streaming MP3 file). Another nice touch is the Amazon podcast. Don't click the listen button as you are presented with an .asx file, some sort of windows media container file, no good for our purposes. Downloading or subscribing to the podcast will present a nice proper MP3 file.

betterPropaganda

betterPropaganda provides a decent selection of audio from a variety of artists. Similar to Amazon, betterPropaganda provides this music free of charge as an enticement for consumers to follow the links to purchasable music. Some songs are available as MP3s for download, some are streaming files, and some are available as both.

betterPropagandaNot every artist featured on betterPropaganda has songs available for download or streaming in MP3 format. There's a smattering of Windows Media and RealAudio files intermingled into our favored MP3 tracks. A little experimenting will weed out the incompatible audio tracks. I already have around twenty songs downloaded from this fine site, and there are many more freebies to choose from.

Tangentially, betterPropaganda also provides a decent selection of videos available for streaming. The two I attempted to stream, Le Tigre's TKO and Brazilian Girls' Don't Stop, were both encoded in QuickTime. Unfortunately, either the site did not like iCab or the last version of QuickTime available for Mac OS 9 isn't compatible.

Maybe dialup is too slow for the video to even begin playing.

eMusic

My download site of choice, eMusic, has a catalog of over 1,000,000 songs from 1,000 independent artists. While their focus rests solely on the top independent labels, there are enough well known artists spanning several genres and decades to get the new subscriber's feet wet. A consumer with an appropriately discerning ear can spend years as a member and still discover new artists or albums to experience.

All music on eMusic is encoded as MP3. Most songs are VBR, but there may remain some CBR stragglers. Either way, quality is at least 128 kbps, usually higher.

eMusic differs from the first two sites, Amazon and betterPropaganda, because eMusic is a paid subscription service. Don't worry about large expenditures; eMusic is fairly priced in comparison to its other for-pay competitors. Pricing is aggressive, and there are three basic tiers:

  • eMusic Basic - $9.99 per month/40 downloads
  • eMusic Plus - $14.99 per month/65 downloads
  • eMusic Premium - $19.99 per month/90 downloads

Additionally, a one year agreement will drop the rates even further.

  • eMusic Basic Annual - $95.90, 40 downloads a month for 12 months
  • eMusic Plus Annual - $143.90, 65 downloads a month for 12 months
  • eMusic Premium Annual - $191.90, 90 downloads a month for 12 months

If you feel the urge to download more than your allotment of music in a given month, eMusic also provides booster packs.

  • Booster Pack 10 - $4.99 for 10 downloads
  • Booster Pack 25 - $9.99 for 25 downloads
  • Booster Pack 50 - $14.99 for 50 downloads

Honestly, I find it easier and cheaper to simply save my desired downloads for the following month, but the booster pack option is there nonetheless. Another interesting choice is the handy gift certificate option for 40 downloads a month at 3, 6, or 12 months with prices of $29.97, $59.94, and $96 respectively.

There also seems to be a two-year offer. For whatever reason, my account can only see the pricing for the eMusic Basic Two-Year subscription, which is $179.82. You can probably guess the relative discount for the eMusic Plus and Premium Two-Year subscription rates.

In all honesty, I started with eMusic Basic, and after almost a year I went to the annual rate. My annual contract is up again in a couple months, and I will probably stay at the basic annual rate; I doubt I'll do two years. Standard procedure for an expiring annual account is to switch you to a month to month rate unless you specify you want to continue on with an annual subscription, upgrade, or cancel.

eMusic works simply enough, you can search for tunes by several different criteria. All music (well, except for a select few oddball tracks) can be sampled by streaming either individual songs or the entire album. The samples are nice 30 second M3U snippets. If the samples meet expectations, feel free to download either individual songs or the entire album. The catch to downloading entire albums with a single click is the requirement to use the eMusic Download Manager. A current version of this software is available for Mac OS X and Windows 98/ME/2000/XP. If you use an older OS, don't fret, an older version is still available for Mac OS 9 and Linux.

While the Download Manager offers an easy way to sort and name downloads, I find it buggy and prone to dropping downloads on slower connections (I am on dialup, after all). Unfortunately, if you are 98% done when the drop occurs, the process begins again from the beginning. Luckily, eMusic is truly cross platform with its support of music download via the browser. Manually creating and naming artist folder and album subfolders is a small price to pay for the increased download reliability.

eMusic keeps a list of all your downloaded music, which allows you to download again at a later date any previously downloaded song without counting against your current or future monthly allocation of music.

In case there is any lingering confusion about the terms of service, all music downloaded from eMusic is yours to keep. Even after your subscription expires, all music remains fully functional. Of course, any benefit from information in your profile will disappear once you cancel your subscription.

Bottom line, feel free to give eMusic a try - after all they offer a fee trial. At least 25 free songs, sometimes even more depending on the current offer.

Magnatune

Hurray, another DRM-free music store. Magnatune one-ups almost every other digital music store with the sheer flexibility in selecting quality. Anything from full quality 44k/16-bit WAV, VBR MP3, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, 128KB MP3, AAC, 256 kbps MP3, and even pressed CDs can be chosen.

Magnatune differs from the more common download sites/services - Amazon, betterPropaganda, eMusic, iTunes Music store, etc. - which act as distributors to the record labels and consumers. Instead, Magnatune does double duty as distributor and publisher. Magnatune is a full fledged record label selling whole albums. No specific mechanism for a la carte selection is provided.

...half of the purchase price goes to the artist.

Their motto, "We are not Evil" is not merely for show. Indeed, besides refusing to include DRM in their music, Magnatune seems to treat their artists as the valuable resource they truly are. In fact, Magnatune could spend much time boasting very loudly (deservedly so in my opinion) that half of the purchase price goes to the artist. 50-50 is a considerably more generous split compared to what artists typically claim to receive from their label, yet Magnatune is rather modest about the whole affair.

Magnatune not only looks out for their artists, but also the consumer. Besides my continued incessant praise for the lack of DRM (on full CD quality downloads no less), Magnatune encourages the sharing of up to three copies of purchased music with your friends. Heaven's to Betsy, no DRM, CD quality music (actual CDs if you prefer), legal music sharing, and treating artists as valued contributing partners. What has the world come to and how could things get any better?

Oh, one more thing. I should mention that every album has a fabulously executed and fully consumer participatory, variable pricing scheme. The consumer pays a price to purchase an album based solely on the consumer's viewpoint of fairness. Let the consumer's sense of fairness reign, and I certainly hope this system works well for Magnatune and their artists.

On to the ordering and download process. All downloading is accomplished through your browser, so Magnatune is another fantastic cross-platform alternative. No platform vendor lock-in to worry about with this service. Streaming audio is available for sampling - listening to entire tracks or albums is a more apt description of the process. High or low quality streaming (M3U again) can be chosen from, depending on your individual level of bandwidth impairment.

Once you find an artist worthy of your hard-earned currency for, simply click on the purchase link. Payment can be delivered by Master Card, Visa, or PayPal (American Express and Discover are acceptable through PayPal). CDs cost about $5 more than an electronic download. If you order a CD, immediately downloading an electronic version is not only okay, it's encouraged.

Once the purchase is made, a username and password are granted. Click on the download link any time within 60 days and enter the information and your choice of format for download to begin.

My first and only experience so far with Magnatune was my recent purchase of Touch by Falling You. I elected for WAV, and I had to seek out WiFi access in order to successfully complete the download. No, 655 MB would not have made for a fun week of downloading over dialup.

Two minor complaints and one additional praise. There is no dialup friendly option, as all the music is of good to great quality. The smallest option for Touch was the 128KB MP3 version weighing in at 64 MB. Of course, remaining on dialup is my problem, not Magnatune's.

Also, there's no easy way to pick and choose particular tracks from an album. The variable pricing scheme helps. If you only really like two or three tracks, simply select a low amount for payment. You can always delete the rest of the album from your hard drive and keep the desirable tracks if you feel the need to balance the low payment given.

One last bit of praise, licensing music for podcasts is free for nonprofit or commercial-but-poor institutions. On that note, licensing music form Magnatune in general is very fairly priced.

Given the four options presented in this article, the classic Mac OS can still make an admirable conduit for acquiring digital music from the Internet. While, there is no iTMS or other single mainstream outlet, there are plenty of alternatives out there.

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