UK music download review

Broadband, MP3 players

Downloading music in the UK is a real nightmare at the moment. There are several competing services, which boast different tracks that are compatible with different players and charge for music in different ways.

The Guardian attempts to make some sense of it all by giving a whizz to iTunes, Napster, SonicStage and Sony’s upcoming Connect service.

Click here or read on to get the whole story

Apple’s iTunes grabbed the headlines last week, but legitimate music downloads have been available in the UK for some time. Peter Gabriel’s OD2 group launched last year, and a few weeks ago saw the UK arrival of Napster.
There’s more to come, with Sony’s Connect service slated to arrive at the end of the month and groups such as Wal-Mart, owner of Asda stores, eyeing a European launch for its downloads.

Here’s our verdict on the download services that have launched in the UK.

The legitimate version of the service that kickstarted music downloads has more than 500,000 tracks to stream or download in the Windows Media Audio (WMA) format.

It is available in two forms. For serious music fans, there’s a subscription of £9.95 per month. Users can stream or download to a PC as many tracks as they want. They can then export the tunes to a CD player or a WMA-equipped music player (Creative/Rio players are compatible and Philips models will be soon) for a further 99p or more per track.

The alternative is Napster Light. Just download tunes at a rather pricey £1.09 a throw. Albums can be a ripoff though, with some selling for over £20!

The interface, which is fairly straightforward, perhaps as a nod to its pioneering pirate days, is reminiscent of peer-to-peer service KaZaA. Overall, the service is simple to use and the choice of compatible players is a bonus.

Moz watch:
The only service to offer Morrissey’s new album You Are the Quarry. Shame it costs £19.90.

Sonic Selector (MSN)
Recently revamped, Sonic Selector is available via a host of companies including MSN, Tiscali, Packard Bell and MTV. The MSN version boasts a fairly large library of 350,000 tracks and, as it is European in origin (the service is hosted by OD2), there’s a strong bias towards British artists.

Users can hear a snippet of a track free or pay around 75p to download it to their PC. They can also stream any track for a very reasonable 1p a shot.

The software downloads quickly and meshes neatly with Windows Media player version 9. A recommendation system tracks your choices and then makes suggestions as to what you might like next. Not quite sure how it got Mariah Carey for me, though.

The tracks are downloaded in WMA and are compatible with many digital audio players. The most annoying part is the high price of albums. Unlike iTunes, where whole CDs can be bought for under £10, albums with 15 or more tracks can work out costing the best part of £20.

Moz watch: A good selection of the great man’s albums, though sadly not his new one. His debut, Viva Hate, costs £19.80 to download.

It might be Europe’s biggest music download service, with more than 700,000 tracks just a click away, but from a UK perspective, iTunes isn’t necessarily the most comprehensive. That’s because the group representing smaller labels, and artists such as the White Stripes, Dizzee Rascal and hundreds of other cutting-edge acts, have yet to sign on the dotted line. Still, if you like your music mainstream and largely American, iTunes fits the bill. It is also the only one that works with Apple Macs.

Tracks are competitively priced – 79p per song and from £7.99 per album (not much less than you’ll pay an online retailer for a CD). However, Apple hasn’t been too generous with streaming options. There’s no free or cheap streaming. Instead, you can only hear a 30-second snippet.

The tracks are in the good quality Advanced Acoustic Coding (AAC) format and are easily stored on a Mac/PC and transferred to an iPod (they aren’t compatible with other players). There is, however, a good chance that other music players, and even Nokia phones, will soon be able to accommodate AAC downloads.

Weaknesses include the fact that iTunes is a 20MB file, which will take some time to download if you are on slower connection. The interface is quite clunky compared with some rivals, too.

While it isn’t the service for everyone, iTunes looks certain to be the frontrunner in UK music downloads.

Moz watch:
Morrissey who? Only a couple of Smiths albums.

With its funky, in-your-face graphics, MyCokeMusic is aimed at a younger audience. This is reflected in an even stronger emphasis on individual tracks, rather than albums, and the higher profile of dance music on its website.

As with MSN (both are operated by OD2), it costs 1p to stream a track and 80p on average per download. Like other OD2 sites, downloading music involves buying credits that are debited each time you stream/download. Users can also pay via SMS, with the cost added to their phone bill.

Moz watch: see SonicSelector

The underdog of the UK download market, Wippit has just 60,000 tracks from around 200 record labels (though it does include a few biggies in EMI and BMG).

There are plenty of ways to buy, ranging from one-off payments, usually around 80p, to a yearly unlimited download deal for a competitive £50.

Tracks are mainly available in WMA, although there are still a few MP3s lurking.

Overall, it is an easy-to-use service and the yearly download deal is incredible value. It needs more record companies on board and a higher profile to be a real contender, though.

Moz watch: A solid selection of the Mancunian bard’s back catalogue.

Sony Connect

Launched in the US a few months ago and scheduled to arrive in Europe any day, Sony’s service will feature 300,000 tracks from the big five plus a healthy selection of indie labels.

Tracks, which sell for 79p, will have excellent sound as they will be encoded in Sony’s proprietary Atrac 3 format at 132Kbps. The downside is they can only be ported on to Atrac 3 devices manufactured by Sony.

The US version of the site has been criticised for lacking community features, such as seeing what other people are buying.

Caveat emptor
You might be tempted to go on a shopping spree, but a mess of incompatible technologies could give you more than you bargained for. When you buy a CD you know your music is playable on any device. But in the online world, where files can be copied with ease, the record companies have insisted on strong anti-piracy technology.

Known as Digital Rights Management (DRM), the technology restricts how you listen to your music. Tracks purchased from Apple’s iTunes store, use the company’s FairPlay DRM. It gives you the right to play your music on up to five computers and burn the same playlist to a CD seven times. According to critics, however, it’s a technical solution to the wrong problem, preventing sharing when labels should only really be concerned with making sure artists are paid.

DRM is also being used to lock customers into proprietary hardware and software. Tracks downloaded from iTunes cannot be played on portable players other than the iPod. Apple argues this is no big deal as the iPod is, by far, the most popular portable player. But the company has made no effort to allow the iPod to play music purchased from rival music stores. Apple’s chief executive has made it clear he won’t change while rivals fall short of 50% market share. Rivals typically use Windows Media DRM, which microsoft openly licenses. The result is that music purchased from Napster and stores using Peter Gabriel’s OD2 service (, HMV, Virgin etc) can be played on more than 60 portable devices – except the iPod.

“The iTunes store in the States is the market leader,” says Michael Gartenberg of Jupiter Research, because “there’s no portable player using microsoft DRM that’s anywhere near as good as the iPod.”

Sony’s Connect service will only be compatible with its MiniDisc players. The lack of a common standard is prompting calls for a standards revolution. Leonardo Chiariglione, founder of the MPeg video standard, believes the IT industry has much to learn from the world of consumer electronics.

“The battle between Apple and microsoft is no different from the VHS versus Betamax one,” he says. “The experience there taught us that what prevails is a technology that provides interoperability for consumers.” The Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA) – of which Apple is a part – has developed a blueprint for an open-standards DRM. But, according to Michael Gartenberg: “As long as the iPod is as successful as it is, there’s little incentive for Apple to adopt standards.”

It’s clear we’re going to have to live with incompatible DRM technologies. So before you start building a massive collection of songs, consider exactly how and where you’re going to be able to listen to them – years down the line.

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