The world of music is constantly changing. Vinyl, cassettes, CDs, and now MP3s – and that means that we’ve gone from analog to digital. The best thing about digital music, in my opinion, is that you can purchase it in full online without ever leaving the seat of your desk. But the latest question in online music purchases is – where?
For a long time, iTunes was the de facto leader in online music sales, mostly because everyone flocked to the iPod and praised the seamless transition between it and the iTunes Store. Fast-forward a few years later and now we have plenty of competitors that sell music online. iTunes may still be the largest, but it’s not the best and it’s not the cheapest.
For this article, I’m going to test and compare four distinct qualities between all of the online music retailers on this list: price, selection, user-friendliness, and availability.
Price will be testing the comparative prices between the music services for a particular basket of goods. Specifically, I’ll take the complete price (in USD) of the following 5 albums at each site and use that as a measurement. The 5 albums cover a range of genres and artists:
- Pop by U2.
- Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
- Taylor Swift by Taylor Swift.
- Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites by Skrillex.
- Curtis by 50 Cent.
For a baseline measurement, the iTunes Store would sell this bundle for 9.99 + 9.99 + 7.99 + 7.99 + 9.99 = $46.00
Selection will be testing the sheer quantity of songs available at each of the sites. It’s difficult to devise a metric for measuring diversity and variety, but as the total quantity increases, the chance of greater variety increases, too. For a baseline measurement, iTunes Store has over 28 million songs.
User-Friendliness will be a subjective measure of the look-and-feel and ease-of-use of each site. I like to think that I’ve visited a great number of sites during my still-short lifetime, and though I don’t consider myself an expert in user-friendly design, I’ll be assigning a rating from 1-10 in this category.
And lastly, Availability, which is all about regional limitations to each of these services.
Price: 1.26 + 1.57 + 1.15 + 1.22 + 1.79 = $7. I don’t know how they do it, so don’t ask me, but MP3Panda manages to sell entire albums of songs for the same price as one track at other online music stores. If you want to purchase individual tracks at MP3Panda, they only cost $0.15. If that’s not cheap enough for you, then what is?
Selection: Compared to the big ball players, MP3Panda falls short here. Unlike iTunes, which has 28 million songs, MP3Panda only has 3.6 million songs. But for the price, you really can’t complain here. As long as you want to purchase well-known albums by well-known artists, you’ll probably find it here. However, you are limited to 500 track downloads per 24 hours.
User-Friendliness: The website is not very pretty. It’s not ugly, but it does leave something to be desired. However, it is easy to navigate and everything is very clear and in-your-face. The font is large and the buttons are prominent. It’s no-nonsense here. 7/10.
Availability: Google has MP3Panda located in the United Kingdom, but as far as I can tell, there are no regional limitations for using their service. Their legalese, however, adheres to International Copyright Law and places all responsibility for abuse on the user.
Price: 6.18 + 7.79 + 5.19 + 5.19 + 6.49 = $31. Compared to MP3Panda’s basket price, eMusic is a considerable step up. However, compared to iTunes, it’s a 33% savings. The way eMusic works is through subscription: a monthly subscription lets you download a certain number of songs depending on your plan. Single tracks can be bought for $0.49 each.
Selection: eMusic offers over 17 million songs for download, a little more than half of the size of the iTunes Store. But based on a quick browse of their library, they do include some obscure artists and genres that I’ve never heard of, so if you’re looking for a specific unknown artist, you may or may not find it here.
User-Friendliness: The website looks very mid-2000’s in terms of design, but in terms of functionality, it does everything it needs to do. The quick search bar at the top, coupled with the quick dropdown menu filter, made it extremely easy to find what I needed. The layout is clean and easy to navigate. 6/10.
Availability: eMusic services the following countries: United States, Canada, member states of the European Union, Norway and Switzerland. Using eMusic outside of these locations is a violation of their Terms of Service.
Price: 9.49 + 9.99 + 5.99 + 5.99 + 9.49 = $41. Now we’re getting into the more mainstream alternatives to the iTunes Store, and Amazon MP3 is probably as mainstream as we’ll get. Amazon’s offerings are cheaper than Apple’s offerings–marginally, but still cheaper.
Selection: Amazon MP3 Store is, as far as I know, the second largest online music store next to iTunes, coming in at 20 million songs. If you can’t find a song for sale at either iTunes or Amazon, then it’s likely you won’t find it anywhere else. With that said, Amazon’s selection is indeed huge.
User-Friendliness: Having been in the online retail business for over a decade, Amazon knows what it’s doing in the user-friendliness department. Amazon’s design has been tweaked numerous times over the years, and their MP3 store is just fantastic. 9/10.
Availability: Amazon currently has MP3 stores for the following locations: United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, Italy, Spain. I believe they intend to open up to more countries in the future, but no announcements have yet been made.
Price: 9.99 + 8.99 + 7.99 + 8.99 + 7.99 = $44. The basket price sits at a $2 difference between 7digital and iTunes. The general trend is that prices for songs in these two online stores will be similar, so if cheaper is the only metric you care about, 7digital may not be the alternative you’re looking for.
Selection: 7digital is a service that’s been around since 2004 and it’s apparently one of the largest online music retailers – equal in size to Amazon’s 20 million songs. They carry all of the popular artists and genres, as well as some of the more obscure ones. In terms of selection, 7digital is one of the best.
User-Friendliness: My biggest complaint with the 7digital site is that it’s really, really slow. Perhaps I was just using it during a coincidentally bad time (maybe their site was experiencing technical difficulties?) but it left a sour taste in my mouth. But otherwise, it’s nothing to write home about, but it’s nothing terrible. 6/10.
Availability: 7digital is available in United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and most of Europe.
Price: 9.49 + 9.49 + 7.99 + 7.99 + 9.49 = $45. In terms of price, Google Play is cheaper than iTunes, but only technically. I would think that a company as large as Google could provide some more savings on their offerings, but I guess the price differential is not an important factor for them.
Selection: Google Play’s selection is not the most impressive. They claim to have “millions” of songs on their store, which I believe, but I did have some trouble finding a few of the more obscure artists on my playlists. If all you want is mainstream music, Google Play should suit you just fine.
User-Friendliness: Google Play’s reinvented design over their older Android Market days is a considerable improvement. Shopping around is easy, fonts are readable, the design is simple and clean, and everything is where it should be. Plus, it’s extremely fast. 8/10.
Availability: At this time, Google Play Music is only available to the United States.
If iTunes works for you and you’re satisfied with it, then by all means, stick with it! I’m not trying to take a jab at Apple or anything. However, you should know that just because iTunes is the most popular online retailer of music doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the best. If you’re looking for somewhere else to buy your music, one of the retailers above should do you just fine.
If you have music files on your Mac that you want to play, check out these hi-res music players for Mac that’ll have you listening in no time.
Image Credit: MP3 Player Via Shutterstock
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