Call me a freak, but I’ve never actually heard the music of Nirvana, except for “Teen Spirit,” which is popular enough to be unavoidable, and the Unplugged album, which I bought because it had covers of two Meat Puppets tracks. OK, so now I’m listening to Nevermind for the first time (having a bit of trouble figuring out why Cobain is so famous – most of it sounds as lame now as the rest of grunge did in the summer of ’91).
Amazon just opened up their MP3 music store, and it’s huge – not just in size, but in what it means for DRM’d music. 2.3 million songs for starters, all in standard MP3 format in excellent fidelity (256kbps), and all DRM-free. iTunes charges extra for the privilege of getting hi-fi tracks without DRM; with Amazon it’s the default.
iTunes has historically had clear advantages over web-based music stores from a UI/performance/integration perspective, but Amazon has worked hard to make the problems of doing all of this without a dedicated/integrated app go away. I’ve been begging eMusic to add an inline music player for years now, but nothing has changed. Amazon gets it right on the first try.
Amazon does require a helper app if you want to download whole albums though (which is the only way I buy). The helper app is available for Windows and Mac right out of the gate; Linux version coming soon. I found the Mac version buggy – it promised to transfer tracks directly into iTunes, but didn’t. And the preferences panel refused to open until I relaunched the app. I’m seriously considering dropping the eMusic subscription I’ve kept up for years. Will have to study more to see how their catalogs compare.
The eMusic subscription model is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s a killer deal. But like Netflix, it’s only a deal if you actually use it. So every month I dutifully surf through my saved items and grab my 60 tracks, even if I’m too busy to digest them properly. The upside is that it’s sort of a commitment to expose myself to something new every month. Amazon’s pay-as-you-go model makes more sense financially for occasional buyers, but without the subscription goading me to discovery, I can imagine myself buying – and discovering – less music. You have to be more pro-active to keep new tracks flowing.
The critical missing piece at Amazon is the lack of informational context. iTunes includes reviews and metadata from the All Music Guide, and eMusic hires actual music writers to generate tons of interesting/useful summary info and magazine-style essays. Amazon relies entirely on customer reviews. If there are none, you’re on your own. Not a terrible thing, but I do like to learn a bit about the artist before diving in. [Correction: Amazon does include contextual information for some artists, but not for albums (that I can see).
Hrm… their Captain Beefheart section includes two albums I’ve never heard or heard of, while their Meat Puppets selection includes almost nothing (and none of the good stuff). Give ’em a break – it’s a fresh service. But you’d think it wouldn’t be hard to get SST on board.
Anyway – the important thing is the precedent this establishes. If Amazon can do DRM-free, non-proprietary digital distribution deals with these major labels, it’s the final nail in the coffin. DRM is over (for music anyway). Tears shed by no one.