For a person who grew up when vinyl was king, I made the transition to digital media relatively early. Since 2005, I’ve only purchased a handful of CDs, instead relying on legitimate music sites for MP3 downloads or streaming. Over the years I’ve become familiar with the pros and cons of several of these, and I thought that my observations might make a decent contribution.
The vast majority of my experience is with eMusic, Amazon, MOG, and Google Play. I’ve used iTunes and Spotify peripherally, not enough to form any strong opinions. For each service, I evaluated them on depth of catalog (with a focus on avant-garde music), price, easy of navigation, and integration with home audio systems (in particular the Sonos gear I use a home). While several of these services provide mobile apps that can be used to access their catalogs, I have not made extensive use of these offerings.
I’ve been an eMusic subscriber for quite some time. eMusic offers MP3 downloads of individual tracks and albums, but currently does not support streaming. The major problem and that I, and apparently quite a few other people, have with the service is that the company has dramatically changed their pricing structure several times. I used to subscribe to a $50 / month service, which allowed (if I remember correctly) 200 track downloads per month. I’m now subscribed to a much more modest plan because there is a significant overlap between eMusic’s catalog and that of MOG, and because the price per track has gone up significantly.
eMusic’s strength is their catalog. They have literally thousands of albums of interest, including avant-garde rock, free-jazz, modern classical, and beyond. For example, they have the Bernard Parmegiani boxed set from GRM for download.
Their web site features a good search engine, and a decent recommendations engine. One nice aspect is that you can search albums by label, which is great when you find a label that you really like. On the other hand, the latest revamped design of their site is a bit cumbersome, with each page taking a couple of seconds longer than you’d expect to load.
Their pricing varies from about $4 to $7 per album, which tends to beat out iTunes and Amazon. However, a particular annoying aspect of their pricing structure is that you get a certain amount per month to spend, which disappears at the end of the your monthly billing cycle if you don’t spend it. Thus, you need to pay attention to when your billing cycle is about to end, and sometime you end up purchasing some albums or tracks just because you have to in order to not lose money.
Despite its warts, eMusic is still my favorite and most-used download site.
Not quite the 800-pound gorilla that iTunes is, Amazon was late to the game with MP3 downloads and streaming. While their pricing is still too high, usually $2-$3 above eMusic per album, they make up for it with a number of unique features.
For example, you can stream a copy of any physical CD you bought since 1998 or so via Amazon’s Cloud service. This includes to web browsers, mobile phones, iPads, Kindles, Sonos gear, etc. All purchased MP3s are available via the cloud player, and you can also upload a limited number of tracks to the Player as well.
As for catalog, Amazon has quite a few offerings that are not available on eMusic or other services, but tends to charge a premium for these offerings. Nonetheless, you can occasionally find a bargain on Amazon, such as a John Zorn or Anthony Braxton album for $4-$5. And a nice feature of Amazon over eMusic is that it is pay-as-you-go, so there is no need to hold or manage a subscription.
In a lot of ways, streaming service MOG is a lesser-known version of Spotify. While I have not conducted a detailed comparison, their catalogs are very similar. For $5 a month, you can have unlimited streaming to your browser, and for twice as much you also get streaming to Sonos gear. Additionally, some TVs and even cars are supporting this premium streaming as well.
As a music fan, I like the idea of streaming because I don’t have to store or organize MP3s or physical media, and I can access it from anywhere. MOG’s implementation is generally solid, though I’ve had a few problems with the service being glitchy or unavailable.
A major downside to MOG is that you cannot operate more than one stream at a time. There is no “family plan.” So, if I want to listen to one song in my home office and my wife or kids want to listen to something else in a different part of the house, we’re out of luck. Also, the MOG search engine is weak, as you have to type artist, album and song names exactly right, or it might not find what you’re looking for. Their fuzzy search algorithms are weak, and it doesn’t help that some albums are listed under the wrong artist. Also, there is no way to search based on label, even though one of their customer support representatives told me that feature was coming two years ago. Still, their recommendations engine is fairly good.
Google is taking a fairly different approach toward online music. The Play music service allows you to purchase, download and stream albums and tracks. However, the main reason that I use the service is that it allows you to upload up to 20,000 MP3s that you’ve purchased elsewhere. Then you can stream those tracks to your browser or mobile phone.
I have not thoroughly evaluated its catalog, but Google’s prices are comparable with Amazon. As a result, I often purchase MP3s from eMusic, use the Google Play app to automatically upload them to Google, and then stream them to wherever I am. This also serves as a nice backup service. While it does a fairly good job of automatically categorizing your tracks into albums and styles, occasionally these algorithms fail spectacularly, leaving you to clean up the mess.
Integration with third party devices is coming slowly, but I suspect that Google Play will eventually be supported in Sonos equipment, home stereos, cars, and so on.
Oh yeah – this service is free.