Legal, major label DRM-free MP3s hit UK (at last)
Play.com gets the mainstream jump on Apple and Amazon
Play.com, the Jersey-based entertainment retailer, has beaten Apple and Amazon to the punch today by opening the UK's first mainstream* legal digital rights management-free music download store with major label backing.
Amazon has yet to replicate its US digital store on this side of the Atlantic, and a spokesman for the firm refused to say if it ever intends to do so. Apple iTunes Plus in the UK offers DRM-free tracks, but only in the company's favoured AAC format.
So far, EMI is the only major label to sign up to Play.com's digital store. Wendy Snowdon, head of PlayDigital, said: "It is only a matter of time before the other labels embrace this." In the US, Amazon Digital has become the first to convince all four majors, in a collective two fingers to Apple, to drop DRM.
EMI tracks will be sold at 320Kbit/s on Play.com. Music from dozens of smaller independent outfits will be encoded at 192Kbit/s, although a spokesman said that all will be bumped to 320Kbit/s. iTunes Plus and Amazon Digital encode at 256Kbit/s.
Play.com's new store is also priced aggressively. Top-selling tracks will cost 65p, compared to 79p at iTunes. Amazon charges 99 cents per track in the US, although transatlantic currency conversion rates rarely bear any relation to the value of the dollar against the pound.
Play.com said the average price per track will be 70 pence. Album bundles are charged at £6.99.
I want my MP3s
Earlier this week, Reg reader Stuart Henderson wrote in to say: "Every other week I seem to read about companies striking deals with the big labels to to sell non-DRM'ed MP3s to the masses. Which is odd, because I can't find any."
"My wallet is open, my ears pricked up and I'm itching to jump on the soulless-train that is mainstream popular music. Will anyone take my money?" he asked.
Well, Stu, your prayers have been at least partly answered by Play.com.
Amazon's silence on entering the UK market is an entirely pointless attempt at managing its PR. It would be insane if it didn't set up its download stall here, and it has already confirmed its broad international ambitions for the site. The launch timing is merely a question of how nimble its digital licence negotiating skills have become.
There'll still be no way to download the Beatles catalogue DRM-free legally, of course. ®
*Edit: The UK-based digital music retail startup 7digital got in touch to say they've been offering EMI's catalogue DRM-free for a year. Other services offer specialist genres.
History repeating itself
Everyone whose ears aren't full of wax knows that Walkman cassettes were vastly inferior in terms of quality to LPs or CDs. Access to specific tracks was also a problem. The one thing the format did have in its favour, though, was the fact that you could record it at home. (And, in fact, you generally ended up with a superior product if you did. A store-bought album on tape never sounded as good as a home-taped one. Even cheap stereos always recorded much better than they played back: most of the distortion was introduced in the final amp feeding the speakers.)
Hence, its success as a format. The killer advantage it *did* have over the other formats -- home recordability -- was enough to make up for the poor sound quality, general flimsiness and slow access.
MP3 has its own killer advantage: ubiquity. It was just There First. And while Ogg Vorbis is touting "patent-free" as an advantage, MP3 is also patent-free in most of the world (thanks to mathematical processes being excluded from the scope of patentability in many countries) anyway.
Transcoding between lossy formats is never a good idea. You can't recover what was lost by the first encoding, and you end up losing more in the second.
"simply log back on to Play.com and re-download the file"
"Can I re-download my purchases?
For each track or album purchased through PlayDigital, there is a set limit to the number of times you can re-download the file. This may vary by title as the record label sets the re-download limit. If you were to lose a file or it becomes corrupt for any reason, you will need to log on to your account and go to the ‘My Downloads’ section where you will find all your purchase history from PlayDigital. You then need to simply select the item(s) you wish to recover, and follow the download instructions to retrieve a copy. You will be notified when your re-download limit has been reached."
Still a little pricey compared to Amazon marketplace, but this thing's got legs. It's the first sensible large-scale attempt to provide a decent alternative to physical media since allofmp3.
I'll be scooping up some 'pop classics' that I would never consider purchasing on a CD with 11 other filler tracks. Beyonce's "Crazy In Love" - things like that...
Rebirth of "The Single" as a thriving format?
320kbps MP3s disappoint everyone
For people who want decent quality but need small files (e.g. limited capacity portable music player), they will have to re-encode to a smaller bitrate. Putting the same piece of audio through a lossy-compression algorithm twice sucks for quality. It's certainly not something anyone should pay money for.
For people who want the best quality, FLAC or some other lossless encoding format is better than 320kbps MP3. The MP3 will sound fine for most people, but if you're going to have large files anyway then why not go the distance and give us FLAC so that everyone is happy?
People can then batch-transcode to lower bitrates (for portable players) as they require and they will always have optimum quality that their target format can provide without any quality lost because of how it started off.
Of course, some people just want a 192kbps MP3 that they can play everywhere without using up a lot of space or having to be transcoded, and that should be an option as well. Options are important, as others have said, but the batch transcoding tools are so easy to use now that, download time aside, I don't see why anyone should dislike a FLAC download.
I am glad to see the music industry is slowing switching to DRM-free digital sales but I still won't buy any of their products online unless they give me the same quality, and adaptability when it comes to transcoding, that I get from buying a CD. So far it's only a few independent releases and labels which get this right.
It's also funny how the video industry is *increasing* quality, from VHS to DVD to the new high-definition formats, while the music industry seems intend on *decreasing* quality from CDs to gratuitously compressed downloads. I guess your average punter notices visual quality a lot easier than they notice audible quality.