- REVIEW: BuyMusic.com
Online music store operated by Buy.com
The first of many iTunes Store clones for Windows, BuyMusic is rough, clumsy, and disregards all competition except iTunes. Compares unfavorably to pre-iTunes services Rhapsody, Emusic, and sometimes Pressplay in interactivity, track pricing, community, elegance, music discovery, and ease of downloading. Subscription-free plan appeals to browsers avoiding commitment. Variable pricing generally higher than implied in promotions. Terrible file delivery. Redbook burning erases DRM. Clear but ugly Web interface.
PRICING AND DRM:
* Tracks are variably priced between 79 cents and $1.19, most in the higher range. Albums are variably priced between $7.00 and $10.00.
* Each track contains its own DRM, specifying a number of downloads, device transfers, and burns. Some restrictive tracks allow only one download; others permit multiple downloads and unlimited transfers and burns.
* Oddly, some tracks list DRM specifications, yet are not for sale.
BROWSING AND LISTENING:
* Web-based interface; no client download. However, the service is closed to Mac users thanks to its reliance on WMP series 9. In fact, pre-98SE users are locked out, too.
* Small WM9 player embedded in corner of Web page plays 30-second samples at 20k. (Occasional 60-second samples.) Very fast buffering, ~2 seconds. Light, clean Web pages load quickly. (See screen shot at www.DigitalSongstream.com/BuyNow-album.jpg.)
* Many tracks do not offer the 30-second sample! (The entire listing for Jazz/Fusion is presented without any listening.)
* No track or artist descriptions. Space provided for member reviews.
* Genre navigation sidebar does not follow to album and track pages.
* Bizarre inaccuracies exist: Liz Phair’s “Red Light Fever” album was apparently released in January, 1900.
* Label credit on track and album pages is not linked to other available releases, as in EMusic.
* In each genre: List All and Top 100 get you out of the confinement of Featured lists. Unfortunately, both extended lists are organized by track, not by album, making them enormous and impractical to navigate. (The complete list of music in the World genre takes 533 pages.) The “Browse All Artists” and “View More Artist Matches” (within genres) options work better, delivering an album-based list.
* Listening to track samples from the List All and Top 100 pages is supported, conveniently.
* BuyMusic does not lend well to music discovery. Site design is partly responsible, as the pages have a thrown-together look that is frankly ugly. The track-by-track display of search results further wastes space and feels like hitting a wall. Finally, the uninviting 30-second samples makes listening a futile and discouraging option.
PURCHASING AND DOWNLOADING:
* Check boxes on album pages make it easy to pluck tracks from albums and throw them in the Shopping Basket.
* Many albums offer only one or two tracks for sale, though not-for-sale tracks are sometimes excerpted in 30-second streams.
* Shopping Basket is clean and intuitive. It’s easy to remove choices, which encourages throwing a lot of stuff into it on the fly.
* First purchase: the page on which new accounts are created confusingly tells the user to enter a password, and NOT to enter a password. (Don’t enter it.)
* Sales are tax-free except in California and Massachussetts.
* Grief: Each track (even of complete-purchase albums) must be downloaded separately and manually. BuyMusic does not initiate the download or package it in any way. This means the user cannot set a default download folder, and must select a HD location for each freakin’ track. The Windows Save dialog defaults to the previously selected location, making each download a fairly easy three-click operation. Still, at this important juncture BuyMusic chokes on everyone’s dust–EMusic, Rhapsody, and Pressplay.
* Further grief: Configurable filename conventions are not supported (a la EMusic), and BuyMusic’s filenames do not include album titles, even when the whole album is purchased. (Bizarrely, the each filename DOES include a track number.) Thus, each file must be manually renamed before (or after) downloading if the user prefers a different convention. Absurdly, the album title isn’t even included as a WMA file tag. So minimal proper tagging is up to the user, too.
* Transfer speed is fast, averaging about 700kbps during testing, spiking as high as 1280kbps. Simultaneous downloading (stacking tracks) is supported. When stacking, the speed of each transfer suffers in bandwidth-limited scenarios such as residential DSL.
* From the e-mail purchase confirmation: “Do not be concerned if items in your order arrive in separate packages. For quicker delivery, we ship from multiple warehouses throughout the country.” The miracle of networking.
* Single-download restrictions appear to be unenforced. Testing successfully acquired single-download tracks multiple times, on multiple computers.
Terms of Service are extensive, especially in the area of content usage. Some interesting points:
* “All downloaded Content is sublicensed to End Users and not sold, notwithstanding use of the terms ‘sell,’ ‘purchase,’ ‘order,’ or ‘buy’ on the Site or this Agreement.”
* U.S. customers only.
* No more than 100 downloads from one label “at one time.”
* The language surrounding unauthorized use is harshly restrictive, and appears to disallow using purchased tracks in a legal Webcast. Webcasts are not mentioned as such, but strict prohibition of any commercial use is specified.
* TOS must be agreed to AGAIN at checkout.
* Files are WMA series 9 with variable DRM, encoded at 128kbps, 44kHz. File properties also mention “stereo 2-pass VBR,” despite the 128k specification.
* The usual problems prevent playing purchased tracks in certain software, notably Winamp. Media Jukebox and Musicmatch Jukebox both handle the tracks.
* Poor tagging prevents effective playlisting before extensive work by the user.
BURNING AND RIPPING:
* MusicMatch (v7.1) plays downloaded BuyMusic tracks, but refuses to burn them.
* MusicMatch succesfully rips burned tracks to open MP3 files. BuyMusic tracks do not burn with track information of any sort, so the user must name track files manually when ripping.
PROGNOSIS AND OPINION:
Has iTunes Store succeeded because of the service model, or because the Mac community voraciously adopts in-house services? That is the question BuyMusic, and others to come, are betting on.
BuyMusic has launched a shaky, immature knock-off of the iTunes Store model, gambling that Windows users will embrace non-subscription, per-unit music buying as Mac users have. BuyMusic also hopes to gain first-mover advantage in the Windows realm. If the bet is correct, users will favor the familiar store template over greater interactivity, a more mature and friendly acquisition experience, and less expensive track purchases of subscription services. Of course, Windows users are already, for the most part, ignoring those services.
However, the Windows-based online music class, experienced and jaded, is not friendly or forgiving toward non-MP3 formats. With a huge number of devices and programs at its disposal, and MP3 the only universal file format, WMA is irrelevant. Ripping burns to MP3 works well, but is too laborious to distract many users from P2P.
Much is made in the press over BuyMusic’s track prices, a few of which dip down to 79 cents. Rhapsody’s entire burning catalog is priced at 79 cents, and it’s much more easily acquired. Emusic, when actively used, dishes up albums for pennies. Again, the bet is that consumers will vote flatly against subscription payments. Undoubtedly, a strong selling point of this service type is the avoidance of commitment. It’s just a store, and one can drift in and out without spending a cent.
As such, BuyMusic more closely resembles Amazon than a progressive new music service. That might represent the direction in which the marketplace wishes to move. My own prediction of failure for Windows-based iTunes clones is admittedly influenced by hope, as I regard the per-unit method embraced by iTunes and its frightened content providers as an anti-visionary step backward. The downfall of the monthly-pay model and its high interactivity would mire online music in the product-based swamp from which it has been trying to escape. The current state of the art, represented by hybrid product/service plans like Rhapsody and the “feels free” buffet of EMusic, operates in a realm far above BuyMusic. One can only hope they survive the onrushing bandwagon.