from the January 2006
by Rob Zorn
Record companies and distributors have long been alarmed at the way unauthorised music downloads from the Internet have eroded revenues and deprived their artists. Despite regular lawsuits against in the U.S. as a clear warning to people who use peer-to-peer technology illegally, up to 90% of the music downloaded is still done in violation of copyright law.
This year, however, weve seen a number of user-friendly, legal alternatives burst onto the scene as these executives have realised that if you cant beat em, youre best off finding ways to provide attractive alternatives.
Apples iTunes, now the seventh largest music retailer in America, has extended its reach around the globe. Since October Australian punters have been able to purchase from its 1.5 million song catalogue, and indications are that Apple is negotiating the small print with distributors here and the service may soon open its cyber-doors in Godzone too. Distributors jealously guard their local territory, which is why you generally cant download music online from any country but your own.
Amplifier (www.amplifier.co.nz) has been around since 1999 (making it one of the oldest download services running anywhere in the world) and we covered that one briefly last month, Coketunes (www.cokefridge.co.nz) launched its Internet service here in August, and Digirama (www.digirama.co.nz) in November. In each case, the music is authorised. Artists are reimbursed, and consumers get the advantages of choice, money-back guarantees and virus-free downloads, which is not the case with peer-to-peer alternatives.
To download and play legal music from the Internet youre probably going to need Windows, and the latest versions of Internet Explorer. On Broadband each song will take about 1-2 minutes to download. A lot of users (still around 50% by most counts) make do on dial-up meaning their phone lines are tied up for 10-15 minutes per song. Your PC should play this music fine, but if you want to take it with you, youll need to purchase a portable music player. The cheapest of these start at under $100.00.
Generally the sites work by allowing you to create a pre-pay account with your credit card. You can browse by artist, song title or genre, and play a lo-fi sample of any given track. If you like the song (or sometimes a whole album) you can download it to your PC. In most cases the songs have copyright protection built in, known as digital rights management (DRM). This restricts the amount of times you can copy or burn the songs, but once downloaded, theyre yours forever.
Coketunes (www.cokefridge.co.nz) has only been available in New Zealand since 1 August 2005, but already boasts 100,000 users. Its growing by several thousand each month and offers 722,000 songs. These cost $1.75 each, or you can download the whole album, for $18.00.
Its advantage over other legal online music providers is that it is powered by On Demand Distribution, whose software it also uses in seven similar European download sites. Songs added to their catalogue anywhere in the world also become available here, and vice-versa, which is why theyve got such a wide selection. They do actively promote New Zealand music, but its the size of their international catalogue that is most impressive. If your taste is mainly for overseas artists then this is the site that will offer you the greatest choice.
Coketunes also offers a pretty sophisticated download experience, and depending on your level of computer expertise, this can be a good or a bad thing. You can play streamed samples direct from the site, but you need to download and install their music manager software before you can download any songs to your computer. This will take you 5-15 minutes depending on your connection speed. Downloaded songs will the automatically play in Windows Media Player.
Youre restricted to using Internet Explorer 6 on a Windows machine (no Macs or boutique browsers) because their download technology is dependent upon IEs built in Active X software. The songs come down in WMA format which is a compression format similar to mp3, but one that also carries licensing restrictions, ie a built in restriction on how many times you will be allowed to copy or burn the song to a CD (usually around 3 times).
Many players can handle WMA format, most notably Windows Media Player which comes standard with Windows. but you wont be able to play these songs on your iPod, unfortunately, because of the Microsoft based digital rights management component built into the WMA format of Coketunes downloads. This is probably the biggest drawback.
You can pay by credit card or SMS (Telecom only), and Coketunes will give you increased credit if you load up lots of dollars in advance. E.g a $59.99 payment will get you $66 worth of credit, and the more you pay in advance, the greater the credit bonus.
Compression - Full quality music files tend to be large and would take a long time to download. Music available on the Internet is typically compressed. A small amount of music quality is sacrificed (youd have to listen closely to notice) but file sizes are reduced by about 90%.
Kbps - Kilobits per second. This refers to how compressed the music file is. The higher the number of kilobits per second, the less compressed and the better the quality. 128kbps is considered acceptable. 256kbps should provide better sound.
Low-fi - Highly compressed file down to as little as 48kbps.
WMA (Windows Media Audio) - a compressed audio file format developed by Microsoft, similar to mp3, but which more easily incorporates DRM.
DRM (Digital Rights Management) - refers to the encryption coding built into audio media files to protect their copyright. DRM controls the amount of times that you can copy, transfer or burn a track Windows Media and Fairplay are the most widely used types of DRM.
MP3: (MPEG Layer III) - This is the most popular type of compressed audio file. Its compatible with almost all digital audio players, but the files arent normally protected by DRM.
Stream - This is typically how you would listen to samples. Streamed music is played in real time either by music software at the site itself, or via your own music playing software (e.g. Windows Media Player). But the music is not downloaded to you in a way you can keep.