Monday, April 17, 2006

Ones and Zeroes Make the World Go 'Round:
Part Zero: Introduction! Music!

(Pre-script: I began this post on 4/2/2006, but stopped halfway through for a variety of reasons. Since placing it on hold, I've been noticing a bunch of similar articles popping up around the Intertron. Most of these I've been seeing have been much more focused in their scope, looking at just music, or briefly discussing games as a tangent to another conversation entirely. My goal here is to discuss digital content distribution in all its forms. I may get sidetracked. I may ramble on about arguably inconsequential details. I'm fine with this, and I hope you are, too. While this post may cover some ground that's already been trodden, I feel that this larger view of digital distribution is still relevant.)

We all use the Internet for everything we can. We get our news here. We entertain ourselves on it. Some of us play games on it. We inform ourselves on it. There's little doubt that those ones and zeroes zipping through the ether really do keep us going from day to day. But I don't think we're using the Internet's full potential at the moment. We're getting closer, though, which is heartening. I'm talking about digital distribution.

"Digital distribution of
what," you may be asking yourself, and rightly so. The answer? Everything. Well, everything that
can be distributed digitally... Obviously, I'm not calling for digital distribution of hardware, clothing, etc. Until we have some sort of home nano-synthesizing machines to take digital instructions and construct, say, a Xbox 360, this just isn't practical. Pure-
meatspace objects must, for now, stay in meatspace. What we can distribute digitally, though, we're starting to do. We've just got a bit more work left to perfect it all.

This is the spot where the state of the industry is furthest along. There are many different competing stores, a couple of which are very good, most of which are pretty much crap. I'm going to discuss just two in any sort of depth. First, of course, is Apple's iTunes Music Store. With a huge selection of songs (not to mention TV shows, music videos, and if the rumor mill is to be believed, feature-length movies in the near future... but that's another section), there's a fairly good chance you can find what you want there. Sure, it's in Apple's proprietary format, limiting your listening options to iTunes itself and your choice of iPod (ignoring, for the moment, that you can burn a CD from it and listen in any CD player you may have, not to mention
JHymn for older versions of iTunes), but there are much worse players that you could be locked into. And yes, it's DRM-tastic, but in a couple years of use, I have yet to run into a single problem with Apple's Fairplay scheme. Overall, iTunes Music Store is fantastic. You'd be hard pressed to find a service that's better on all fronts.

Emusic, on the other hand, has a much more limited library of songs to choose from. This is by design. You know all the crap songs you hear on the radio these days (or even back in The Day... we all know that music in general wasn't actually better Back Then, we've all just got rose-colored glasses... but anyway: TANGENT!)? You're not gonna find that on Emusic. The turds you see in iTunes' top ten list? Not there. What you will find, though, is an astounding array of independent artists. It's almost (but not quite) the sort of thing I called on Apple to do in my last post. It's all in MP3 format (of varying bitrates. Literally. It's all encoded in VBR) with nary a shred of DRM in sight. It also blows iTunes out of the water in pricing. Emusic takes a different approach to selling songs. It's halfway between Apple's pay-per-download and Rhapsody or Yahoo!'s monthly subscription rental-style (i.e., stop paying, stop listening). With Emusic, you pay a monthly fee (as little as $10) to get a certain number of downloads for that month. The $10 plan gives you 40 downloads a month. That's $0.25 per song. With the other options, you can get it down as low as $0.16 per song (given their current sale of 25% off the two-year plan). If it sounds like I'm shilling, I apologize. I'm just extremely impressed with Emusic and get all evangelistic when discussing it. Seriously, though... check it out. They've got a free trial where you can get 25 downloads no-strings attached, yours to keep even if you cancel. I'm almost making myself sick with this... I sound like a goddamned infomercial. For my money, though, Emusic's got the digital distribution game locked up. They've got a great pricing scheme, they've got the right idea tossing the DRM, and I'm totally on board with the indie-ness (again, see my last post for more on that). On to the next bit!

As mentioned in my
pre-script, there're quite a few other stores around, but they've been covered elsewhere. I'll leave it to you to click that last link to find out more about the others. Just remember, though: while looks good on paper, there's been no definite ruling on its legality.

Next Post: Conclusion! (Including discussion on digital distribution of games and more)

(Post-script: Okay, I totally didn't mean to do this, but the post's getting long, the hour's getting late, and the bed is singing me its sweet siren song of sleep. I'm going to break this post into (at least) two parts. The next (and if all goes according to plan, last) part will be posted when I Damn Well Feel Like It.)

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