Digital Music: iTunes

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Background

As far as digital music goes, iTunes is the king. It kick-started the industry and continues to dominate it. While others were hurt by DRM, Apple powered on regardless. Exact figures are hard to find, but their share of the digital download market stands at something absurd like 80%. It’s not all bad news for the competitors, though. There’s plenty of room for improvement and the keys to Apple’s success are hardly a big secret. It will be interesting to see how the expansion of this market pans out, but for the time being, iTunes sits at the top for one very good reason: it’s the best.

Now don’t get the impression that I’m some kind of Apple fan boy. Far from it. I’ve never owned an iPod and I’ve always steered clear of iTunes because it lacked flexibility. But there’s one thing I’m always willing to admit: Apple has style. Everything they put out is so damn cool and I can understand why people throw themselves at it. If I had a spare $400, I’d buy an iPod Touch to admire how thin it is. And the way all their products seamlessly integrate just makes them all the more amazing. I would love nothing more than to surround myself with everything Apple. Sadly, however, their products are a little TOO good.

You see, in order to truly enjoy one of Apple’s products, you have to enjoy them all. I can’t just buy an iPod and bask its sexiness. I’d have to use iTunes to manage it, sacrificing many of the features I enjoy in other programs (read: obsessive tagging and organisation). Similarly, if I wanted to skip the iPod and just enjoy the products on offer in the iTunes music store, I’d be out of luck. Sure, iTunes is beginning to sell some songs as unprotected mp3s, but the majority will still only work on the iPod. Sadly, it seems you can’t enter the Apple world half-heartedly. It’s either all or nothing.

If money wasn’t such a concern for me, I would buy their ipods, buy all my music on iTunes, buy a PowerBook, buy an Apple TV and probably buy an Airport or two to connect it all up. Life would be bliss. Sadly, money is a concern for me, as it is for most of us. And so, my life has been relatively Apple-free. To an extent. Both my brothers and half my friends have iPods so I know the iTunes set up quite well, but up until now, the store was only ever entered by accident (argh! how do I get out? please don’t take my money!). Well now I’ve finally tried it and was rather surprised with what I found.

Range

I always knew that iTunes had a big catalogue. After all, it is the most popular service so you’d hope so. But after exploring it, it exceeded all my expectations. It is undeniably impressive. Unlike other services which may cater for a specific audience (independent or mainstream etc.), iTunes caters for pretty much everyone. I found a good 95% of everything I would want to buy, including a number of smaller releases by local bands. They have Cloud Control and John Columbus! Wow.

Their catalogue is so extensive that it is actually beginning to rival physical CD stores. In fact, in many cases, it surpasses them. That certainly can’t be said for any of the other digital music stores. The popularity of iTunes has put Apple in the perfect position where artists actively try to get their music added. This means their catalogue stays updated without them having to chase music. Still, not everything is rosy. Relations with Universal have been a little rocky lately and the loss of major labels is always going to hurt. Also most of the music you find is protected and thus limited to your iPod and the iTunes software. The iTunes Plus range, which gives you unprotected, higher quality files, is still fairly limited and leaving a lot to be desired.

Method

Anyone who leaves their house will know that you can buy vouchers to use in the iTunes music store. They come in a variety of sizes and are available pretty much everywhere. They are a nice alternative for those without a credit card, though it can be annoying when you’re left with $1.50 that isn’t enough to buy anything. Whichever method you use, you’re credit is displayed in the top right and is automatically reduced as you buy music.

If you want to use the iTunes store, you’ll have to have the software installed. Though it depends on your particular setup, I’ve always found iTunes to really eat away at my computers resources. Of course this isn’t ideal, but it isn’t too big of an issue. Once it gets going, everything seems to run smoothly. In typical Apple style, the interface is very simple and uncluttered. The home page gives a number of different recommendations, including personalised ones. Search results are also laid out nicely, allowing you to easily find what you what. As far as options for browsing go, iTunes is as comprehensive as you’ll find.

Like most digital music stores, iTunes has a fairly rigid pricing scheme. Tracks all cost the same and full albums can be bought as a slightly discounted package. It’s all pretty standard stuff. Thankfully, the iTunes Plus range doesn’t any cost more, which is a promising sign. Hopefully this means they’re aiming to move the entire catalogue into this format.

Once you’ve found want, you simply click the buy button and the songs are added to your purchased list where they start to download. The whole system is brilliantly straightforward. You can pause the downloads, alter the order they’re downloading in or just continue browsing while you wait. Once they’re done, they are automatically integrated into your collection for you to enjoy. The process goes so smoothly that I’m starting see the appeal of having your music player and store wrapped up in one nice application.

Most of the music you get from iTunes will be protected and in Apple’s proprietary AAC format. For those of us who don’t use iTunes or an iPod, this can be problematic. You could just leave this music as it is and use iTunes whenever you wanted to listen to it, but this would be rather limiting. The better option is to burn it to a CD. Not only does this allow you to enjoy it like any other CD you may have bought, but you can also rip it back to your computer as a standard mp3. After all, you did the right thing by paying for it, so bending the rules a little shouldn’t hurt.

Conclusion

If you’re an iPod and iTunes user, this store is a Godsend. The combination of range and simplicity actually makes buying music a pleasure. If you want to buy music online, you have the perfect solution. For the rest of us, iTunes isn’t so saintly, though it does fair pretty well. It’s hardly practical to burn and re-rip every album you want to buy, so I’d say it serves best as a backup option for the hard to get items. On the other hand, you have the smaller, but more friendly iTunes Plus collection. If you find a CD you want in this format, go for it. You do have to manually convert it to mp3, but this is nothing compared to the trouble you’ll go through with some other on-demand music stores.

Before I tried this service, I was very negative towards it. The way Apple forced protection and their own formats on buyers just didn’t sit well. Whenever I saw a ‘Buy on iTunes’ link, I scoffed at the thought of giving my money to this big corporation and would look elsewhere. But iTunes isn’t as bad as I always thought. On protection, they are at least trying to improve things and when it comes to the whole selling process, they are the beacon of hope. I’d still like to see more improvement, but they certainly deserve some credit for all the good things they’ve brought to this industry. The iTunes music store is a genuinely viable option for buying your music. If you’re yet to try it, I recommend you shed your preconceptions and just give it a go. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Next: JB-Hifi

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