Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

Digital music downloads caught on without even having to try. As soon as internet users realised they could rip their music collections and add them to their MP3 players, they quickly began using the web to share tracks and acquire more. It's taken the music industry years to catch up, to impose any effective form of regulation and to realise that such measures just won't wash with consumers.

The industry's answer was to shut down the host sites, wrap music in a protective cocoon that prevented it being ripped and start selling MP3s - for almost as much as the CD versions.

Prices have come down, of course, and there remains a huge market in digital music downloads. But the digital rights management (DRM) technology used to protect MP3s has proved highly unpopular with consumers, restricting their ability to transfer purchased tracks between devices.

As more and more websites have begun offering libraries of DRM-free music over the past two years, the industry has shown signs of backing off from its draconian antipiracy methods. In January, Apple finally announced that it had agreements with the four big music publishers to offer their catalogues DRM-free, reasserting its dominance of the market.

But this announcement was long overdue. Apple's iTunes Store now faces fierce competition from the likes of Amazon MP3, which launched its UK DRM-free download store in November 2008. Other notable rivals in the DRM-free market include eMusic and 7Digital, which offers four million tracks. Amazon MP3 offers a similar catalogue, as well as some competitive pricing. During its UK launch, for example, a number of Top 10 chart albums were offered for just £3.

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Over the following pages, we've reviewed 11 music download sites to see how they stack up in terms of track and album pricing, catalogue size and variety, encoding quality and additional services. iTunes is well known for its podcasts and integration with the iPhone and iPods, but some of its rival sites are great for discovering new artists, enjoying exclusive video content and more.

According to a study by Will Page, chief economist of the MCPS-PRS Alliance, more than 10 million of the 13 million digital audio tracks available online have never been purchased. In fact, 80 percent of online music revenue comes from just 52,000 tracks. And of the 1.23 million albums available online, only 173,000 have been purchased, leaving 85 percent languishing in download sites' databases without a single sale.

While most of us tend to stick with what we know and download songs and albums only from established artists, it's great to know that there's so much choice available and so much left to discover. Choosing the right music download site is therefore critical to your listening pleasure.

NEXT PAGE: Amazon MP3

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

Amazon MP3

Click here to visit Amazon MP3

The online retail giant first launched its online music store in the US over a year ago, but the DRM-free service was only made available to UK web users in November. Pitching itself in direct competition with iTunes, this service is a strong contender for Apple's crown as the most popular music download service.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out once iTunes' DRM-free rollout is complete.

The ace that Amazon holds is price. At launch, the majority of offerings from British artists in the UK album chart, including Leona Lewis and Take That, were priced at £3, in comparison with iTunes' standard £7.99. A good number of albums can still be picked up on Amazon MP3 for that low price.

On the whole, Amazon MP3's album prices are lower than iTunes'. Dig deeper and prices sometimes level out, however. At the time of writing, ‘The Sound of The Smiths' cost £7.99 on iTunes and £6.97 on Amazon MP3, but the Deluxe version was 20p cheaper on iTunes at £11.99.

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We also found some individual tracks following iTunes' pricing scheme at 79p. And, like iTunes, Amazon restricts some (usually longer) tracks to album-only sales.

Amazon MP3 makes its downloads available at a bitrate of 256 kilobits per second (Kbps), which Apple is now matching after years of delivering files at inferior 128Kbps quality.

But what really separates Amazon MP3 from most of its rivals is the fact that none of its content is hobbled by DRM. You can play songs and transfer files on to whatever device you like. Apple is still working on allowing users to do that.

NEXT PAGE: Amie Street

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

Amie Street

amiestreet.com

Community members of this independent online music store collectively determine the price of a song. Amie Street uses an algorithm to calculate prices based on demand: all songs start free and rise in price up to 99c (63p) depending on how frequently they are downloaded. You can earn credits by RECing (the site's term for recommending) songs you think will be a hit. Whenever a song you've RECed goes up in price, you earn free credit.

Amie Street offers around 1.5 million MP3s from a dizzying number of genres and artists, from lesser-known figures such as Dennis Driscoll to big-name bands such as Pavement and of Montreal. The quality of files varies from between 192 and 320Kbps because the site sells music from independent artists as well as record labels, so quality depends on the content source.

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We found Amie Street easy to use and could browse its catalogue by genre, new release, the Amie Street Top 25, promoted artists and recommendations based on our listening history.

If your order is below $3 (£2), Amie Street will charge £2 to your credit/debit card or PayPal account and automatically give you the remaining balance as credit.

NEXT PAGE: Apple iTunes

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

Apple iTunes

apple.com/itunes

Apple has now abandoned its FairPlay DRM technology in iTunes, which digitally encrypted AAC audio files and prevented users from playing these files on unauthorised computers. Songs from Amazon MP3 can be used with any MP3 player and most music-enabled mobile phones. iTunes tracks won't play on many devices other than the iPod and iPhone.

In terms of the interface and ease of use, iTunes has the edge. It's an application in its own right; it manages your music and is very easy to navigate. Amazon MP3, meanwhile, is an online-based store with a clunkier navigation and search facility that requires you to download the Amazon MP3 Downloader application.

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iTunes offers far more than just music: podcasts, TV programmes, movies and music videos are all available from its store. A quick scan showed series of 'Lost' and '24', 'The Dark Knight' (to buy or rent), videos from Lily Allen and Girls Aloud and Stephen Fry's ‘Podgrams'. And, while Amazon MP3 claims to be constantly adding to its four-million-strong catalogue, as the daddy of the bunch iTunes has already got a huge range of files.

It's impossible to search for every artist on every music download site here, but Amazon MP3 was notable for its omission of Sweden's excellent The Embassy and Danish band Efterklang. iTunes has far more variety, although neither store offers music by digital refuseniks The Beatles or AC/DC.

NEXT PAGE: Audio Lunchbox

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

Audio Lunchbox

audiolunchbox.com

This easy-to-explore site offers a vast selection of indie-label albums from a variety of genres. Audio Lunchbox has everything from virtually unknown acts to big-name artists such as Tom Waits and The Game, all in MP3 format. You can either sign up for one of its month-to-month subscription plans (these start at £6.80) or buy tracks à la carte (about 65p per track). Audio Lunchbox offers 50 free downloads when you sign up for a subscription plan. Other bonuses include weekly editors' picks and top 10 lists.

More than two million tracks are available at a quality of 192Kbps Variable BitRate (VBR; this means the bitrate changes during the file in order to save space where the maximum encoding level isn't required). It's easy to find what you're looking for, too, with a search facility that specifies 32 genres and track and artist names.

NEXT PAGE: Bleep

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Visit PC Advisor's Digital World for more news on home entertainment technology

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

Bleep

bleep.com

Bleep specialises in electronic and indie music. At 99p apiece, individual tracks are priced a little higher than at the other sites we've listed, but albums are reasonable at £6.99. You can also preview entire songs, rather than 30-second clips, and Bleep has some cool exclusive content.

One artist, for instance, included a comic book with his album that you can view as you listen.

Tracks added to the service since January 2006 can be downloaded at 320Kbps. Those added prior to this date are available with VBR encoding. Bleep claims these files are still of a very high quality and indistinguishable from 320Kpbs MP3s.

While Bleep is easy to use, it has a fairly basic website and allows searches only by artist or label. Orders can be paid for by debit/credit card or PayPal, but there's a charge on orders less than £5 if you use a debit card or PayPal.

NEXT PAGE: CD Baby

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Visit PC Advisor's Digital World for more news on home entertainment technology

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

CD Baby

cdbaby.com

This online record store sells albums by independent musicians in both CD and MP3 format. You can browse CD Baby's collection by genre or mood (or both), or use its Discover Music search engine to find something new. We typed ‘dark' and ‘stormy' into the search box and CD Baby pulled up a couple of albums with short descriptions and listed similar artists. The site's Search by Location and Sound Like features also impressed, allowing us to find new music in our area or find similar music to that produced by our favourite artists.

Artists set their own prices at CD Baby, so prices can vary depending on artist and album length. Expect to pay between $1 (66p) and $9.99 (£6.66). It's important to note that you can't buy individual MP3s on CD Baby, but a catalogue of 192,542 albums is available. Files are encoded using the LAME codec and are available to download at 192Kbps VBR quality.

Note that CD Baby's delivery time from the US can take up to 30 days. We'd stick to its digital downloads.

NEXT PAGE: eMusic

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Visit PC Advisor's Digital World for more news on home entertainment technology

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

eMusic

emusic.com

This subscription-based music store is the world's largest retailer of independent music and the second-largest digital music retailer, with a catalogue of four million tracks and 5,000 audiobook titles. You can access editorials by eMusic's team of music experts, recommendations and member playlists.

Unfortunately, eMusic subscriptions are for songs or audiobooks, not both. However, both subscription packages allow you to download a set number of books or tracks per month for a reasonable flat-rate fee. At the time of writing, eMusic was also offering 50 free downloads to get you started.

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The eMusic music packages start at £10 for 30 downloads a month and rise to £14, which offers 75 tracks a month. The basic audiobook package costs £7.99 per month and lets you download one audiobook per month; the Audiobooks Plus package costs £14 for two per month. You can cancel at any time and the music or audiobooks are yours to keep.

eMusic offers hits from classic acts such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bob Marley and Creedence Clearwater Revival, as well as new artists such as Spoon, The New Pornographers and Ying Yang Twins. Audiobooks are available at 64Kbps, while MP3 files come with 192Kbps VBR quality.

NEXT PAGE: Jamendo

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

Jamendo

jamendo.com

This community-based site differs from others on our list in that the music is absolutely free. That's right: no subscriptions; no per-track cost; no album download fee; and no limitations. The catch? You probably haven't heard of most artists on the site. Top 40 this isn't, but that's why Jamendo is so fun. You can find everything from Chilean folk pop and Italian metal to the next big indie hip-hop star.

Listen online to any song and download it either directly from the site (in MP3 format) or through BitTorrent servers (where you can find MP3 and Ogg Vorbis formats). This site is completely legal because its artists use Creative Commons licences - the same licenses used by Flickr, Deviantart and other content-sharing sites.

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More than 150,000 tracks are currently available at Jamendo as 192Kbps MP3s or 220Kbps Ogg Vorbis files.

Members of Jamendo can get their hands on more than just music. Users can create a personal space, similar to your MySpace or Facebook profile, on which you can publish playlists of your favourite music and even invite your friends to join and then share music with them. You can even write and publish reviews of the albums you've listened to. It may not be mainstream, but it'll certainly encourage you to broaden your musical horizons.

NEXT PAGE: LiveDownloads

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

LiveDownloads

livedownloads.com

Some music fans enjoy live recordings more than studio versions of songs. LiveDownloads affords users the opportunity to listen to and download concert recordings from artists such as the Smashing Pumpkins and the Black Crowes. Though geared more toward fans of the ‘jam band' genre, LiveDownloads also offers some indie, metal and jazz selections in its catalogue of 100,000 songs. It carries a few studio albums, too.

Single tracks are usually 65p each; albums and entire-concert prices are determined by format and length. One gem we found was a selection of jazz and Americana from the Savannah Music Festival. You can download full albums in 128Kbps or 258Kbps MP3 or original CD-quality Flac format; the latter is better quality and slightly more expensive.

NEXT PAGE: Napster

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Visit PC Advisor's Digital World for more news on home entertainment technology

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

Napster

napster.co.uk

Some web users will fondly remember Napster from before it became legit, but then the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) had to go and ruin their fun. Napster has been in business as a legal download service for six years. As well as the subscription-based service that allows users to download tracks but not transfer them to digital audio players, you can simply buy as you go using Napster Light.

You can browse and even preview 30-second clips of the five million tracks available on the site, before deciding if you want to download the DRM-free WMA files for 79p each.

The tracks are available to download at either 128Kbps or 192Kbps format, and artists range from major-label superstars such as Britney Spears and Akon to indie artists including Mary Timony and The Gaslight Anthem.

However, there is a snag. While there's no problem burning the files to CD, they can only be transferred to digital audio players that support WMA. This immediately rules out the Apple iPod. If you don't own an iPod, the long list of compatible devices will almost certainly include your device.

NEXT PAGE: 7Digital

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Visit PC Advisor's Digital World for more news on home entertainment technology

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

7Digital

7Digital.com

Established in 2004, 7Digital is a DRM-free music store that started in the UK but now has online stores in Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Austria and Portugal.

Having completed deals with the four major UK record labels - Sony BMG, Warner Music Group, Universal and EMI - 7Digital's store offers more than four million audio tracks and video downloads in DRM-free MP3 format. Some DRM-free AAC and FLAC files are also available for download, all at 320Kbps quality. Prices start from 50p for individual tracks, £1.79 for videos and from £5 for albums.

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The company also runs indiestore.com, a service that allows anyone to create their own download store through which they can sell their own records. It's a great idea, since iTunes, Amazon and other big-name stores won't deal with unsigned acts or labels.

If you want to sell your own music, it must be in MP3, AAC or WMA format. Artists can set the price of their tracks, specify release dates and view up-to-date sales data. It's possible to sell music in a number of European countries, set up your own blog and make use of the site's widgets.

Two different IndieStore accounts are available. The Starter account is a free service for those fairly new to selling their own music. It allows up to four tracks to be uploaded, but 7Digital will take a 30 percent slice of your profits. The Pro account requires an annual fee of £75 but allows artists to upload up to 20 tracks; it also offers promotion across the 7Digital network and an 80 percent cut of sales.

NEXT PAGE: Limewire Store

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

Limewire Store

The developers of the filesharing client LimeWire launched a US-only music download store in May 2008. Almost two million tracks are now available from a wide array of indie labels, and this number continues to grow steadily.

LimeWire requests $1 (65p) per MP3 (256Kbps), or you can opt for a monthly subscription plans that reduces per-song cost dramatically. The Platinum package, for example, brings the cost down to 27c (17p) per track.

Eventually, LimeWire plans to integrate the store within its filesharing software, so purchase links can appear alongside its search results.

Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store

Visit PC Advisor's Digital World for more news on home entertainment technology