story by Erik Brown
image by Kyle Harter
The information superhighway is quickly becoming…well…congested. How is one supposed to find some decent music out there amidst the endless and exponentially expanding online music sources? This article will introduce some key (and legal) music retailers of both traditional (CDs and records) and digital music online. We couldn’t hope to cover all of them, but those represented here certainly offer something unique to avid music lovers.
Traditional Online Music Retailers
Who doesn’t still enjoy digging their fingernails into crisp cellophane and ripping it off a freshly purchased CD? How about the sadistic pleasure of prying those annoying “stickers” from their case? In this Internet age, there’s still a place for the compact disc, whether you haven’t yet jumped on the digital music bandwagon or you’re an audiophile that insists on creating your own digital music from its source. The Internet teems with many online music retailers, and while there’s merit to major mega-retailers like Amazon and Buy.com, Chicago Innerview would like to present some key lesser-known niche retailers aimed at avid music lovers.
AmpCamp: AmpCamp (http://www.ampcamp.com) is one of those endlessly entertaining black holes on the Web that can suck you in for hours. Every nook of the 100% music-oriented site is fresh and interesting, and it’s run by “a handful of fresh-faced music lovers.” They offer an extensive collection of albums, and their prices are quite reasonable. When it comes to learning about and exploring music, it simply doesn’t get better than AmpCamp. The curious can use the “Index-a-Tron 5000” advanced search engine to search their catalog by any combination of genre, producer, unusual instruments and more. Each album is tagged with various “quick bits” icons that represent unique attributes. For example, albums adorned with an Atari joystick icon are “futuristic” and “like Atari, ahead of their time.” Simply click on the icon for a description. A skilled and carefully screened group of music-savvy reviewers applies a degree of difficulty rating to most albums — which is based on scores across musical qualities such as vocal idiosyncrasy, unconventional song structure, parental approval and art school factor (albums such as Radiohead’s Kid A score fairly high). If that’s not enough for you, AmpCamp offers a free daily mp3 download to tempt you while you browse.
Insound: Insound (http://www.insound.com) launched in the late ‘90s with the intention of promoting and selling good indie rock as “dozens of Amazon-alikes sprouted…with no mind for the underground.” Their Web experience isn’t quite as unique as AmpCamp’s, but it’s very easy to navigate and offers the same key features as large retailers. Like AmpCamp, their niche focus tends to attract a more passionate user-base. Insound offers a number of free mp3 downloads, an online radio station and a daily selection of indie rock videos. Check out their “sound saver” section to shop for a number of mostly independent titles for under $10. Oh yeah…they have a number of vinyl titles as well. Remember that stuff?
Digital Online Music Retailers
The convenience of digital music cannot be denied — iPod-toting hipsters can now carry an entire music collection in their pockets, and a party can be supported by non-stop music with a few simple mouse-clicks. While record labels and their lawyers are busy fighting the war on illegal downloading, a number of legal digital stores have emerged that offer more consistent quality and a faster downloading experience. Technology can tend to be a bit complicated, so before exploring some digital music retailers, Chicago Innerview would like to demystify things a bit.
Something called encoding is what makes portable digital music possible. Without encoding, a large (40GB) iPod or music player would hold around 800 typical tunes. Encoding is what allows that same player to hold around 6,000-10,000 tunes (depending on the encoding format). There are different types of encoding formats that dictate the way the CD data is converted into files for your computer and digital devices. The mp3 is still the most popular and universal format, but Apple’s AAC format is gaining popularity with the iPod, and Microsoft’s WMA format is also gaining ground. Every digital music file may be protected by something called Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM is what prevents a file from being passed around between friends or played on “unauthorized” devices. Record companies love DRM, and music fans should…uh…be aware of its implications.
iTunes: Who the hell doesn’t know about Apple’s iTunes (http://www.apple.com/itunes/) at this point? It has absolutely exploded with the ever-increasing popularity and sheer dominance of the iPod. The iTunes store offers a vast collection of music and offers many of the same features as the traditional online music retailers (customer reviews and ratings, lists galore, buying patterns, etc.), and the purchasing process is absolutely seamless for iPod owners. At 99 cents per song, or under $10 to download an album, it won’t break the bank either. Any song you purchase from iTunes uses Apple’s AAC encoding format and features their DRM. This means that files from the iTunes store CANNOT be played legally on any non-Apple device (c’mon, Apple – play nice). This is an important consideration if you don’t want to be bound to Apple. The only way around this right now is to burn your iTunes files to CDs and re-import them to your computer (not a simple process).
Napster: The once-naughty poster child of illegal file sharing known as Napster (http://www.napster.com) has exercised its demons and been reborn as a legal business. For $9.95 per month, you can use Napster software from your computer to listen to their collection of over 1.5 million songs. You will not own these songs, and you cannot listen to them on a digital music player or without the Napster software. For $14.95 per month, you can get the Napster-to-go plan, which allows you to transfer a selection of Napster tunes to a compatible device (the iPod is not one of them). Again, you will not own the songs you transfer from the Napster-to-go service. The software will integrate with your non-Napster music collection as well, and you can purchase any Napster-to-go song for 99 cents. Downloaded Napster songs use Microsoft’s WMA encoding format and will be protected by DRM, which introduces problems similar to those associated with iTunes.
eMusic: The eMusic (http://www.emusic.com) subscription service is tailored specifically to passionate indie rock fans. The company offers an excellent collection of independent labels representing artists ranging from Miles Davis to Johnny Cash to The New Pornographers. You certainly won’t be able find that Shakira song that I heard every 15 minutes on a recent jaunt to Miami, and there may be a bit of lag time between some record releases and availability, but active eMusic subscribers will probably find their collection quickly and consistently growing — potentially with music by artists they were never aware of previously. eMusic offers a number of subscription plans — one of them gives you 40 downloads a month for an incredible $9.99. The best part about eMusic is the format; all downloads come in a very high-quality mp3 format with no DRM. That means that you can enjoy your eMusic on any device that can play mp3s (which is any device these days). The trade off is that the higher-quality mp3 format requires slightly more space than other formats (a typical song will probably be around 6.5MB instead of 4.5MB).
You Are Now Free to Move About the Online Music Highway
Whether they’re looking to purchase digital music, CDs, or even vinyl, music fans have a number of excellent choices on the Web. When considering digital music services, always be sure to consider the implications of file formats and the legal implications of DRM. And don’t be afraid to explore the far reaches of the Internet for something better — you just may discover the next diamond in the rough in the process…
CI Special Report #010