Updated: 14th May 2013
Over the years, there have been a wide range of legal music download stores where one can purchase music tracks or take out a subscription for ‘unlimited tracks’. A few examples of online music services include iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster (now Rhapsody), Yahoo Music and Amazon MP3. Unfortunately, just as the number of legal music services start up, so do the number of scams and other websites that try to sell file sharing services that are freely available. Many of these websites are designed well enough to fool even careful users, however most of these have tell-tale signs that give them away (discussed further down).
Legal Music Download Shops
First, we will discuss about the advantages and disadvantages of legitimate online music services such as Rhapsody and iTunes, when compared with file sharing networks (or CDs):
Complete Song â€“ Each downloaded track is complete and free of defects such as skipping and sync errors. With file sharing networks, songs are often incomplete (such as a partially downloaded track being re-shared out again) and contain skipping (especially older music). Some anti-piracy organisations deliberately host fake tracks such as MP3 files that contain a verse repeating over & over in an aim to make it difficult to find a proper copy.
Correct song â€“ Some songs on file sharing networks have an incorrect title.
High Quality Encoding â€“ Unfortunately, even though pretty much all legal music download services use lossy compression to encode their tracks, the encoded tracks are guaranteed to be of at least a certain quality, at least at the level where the average lconsumer cannot distinguish between the quality of the original and encoded track. While most MP3 encoders widely available use a decent encoding engine (such as LAME), many consumers still use older or inferior MP3 encoders that produce music that sounds â€˜wateryâ€™ or donâ€™t use the proper encoding settings. A lot of older music on file sharing networks have been shared since even the early days of the original Napster, when most MP3 encoders produced poor quality encodings.
Ability to burn to CD â€“ While consumers can already burn music from file sharing networks to CD, music download services still have their advantage over music CDs that incorporate copy protection. So far, music purchased (by the track or album) on music services can be recorded to CD without being infected with copy protection. Most copy-protected music CDs on the other hand either prohibit the copying to another CD or only allow a limited number of CDs to be burned, however they are also infected with further copy protection to prevent ripping or further copying.
No legal issues â€“ At present, many record labels across the globe are getting very tough on fighting off piracy and it is not just organised crime their after. Many music labels and associations across various countries regularly target websites and even end-users for sharing out copyrighted music over file sharing networks, including students at college, private home users as well as people at work. These include age groups ranging from young children (where parents become liable) to old age retired consumers. In fact, most of the music industries tell consumers to use music download shops as the main way to avoid getting sued.
Digital Rights Management (DRM) â€“ The majority of online shops have done away with DRM on individual song and album sales, such as Amazon MP3, however, this is not the case for music streaming services and unlimited download subscription services, which all use some form of DRM. The purpose of DRM is to try and control what consumers can do with the music they download, such as prevent burning to CD, limit the number of PCs they can transfer to or which portable players they can carry their music on and of course disable the music once they cancel their subscription. The reason behind this is to discourage giving away music and prevent it from being shared online. Without DRM, most record labels would unlikely license their music to be streamed or offered as part of an unlimited download package.
Proprietary Codecâ€™s â€“ While it is fairly straight forward to get MP3â€™s from file sharing services, not all download shops offer music in the MP3 format, such as iTunes and those offering unlimited download services. The main reason is the inability to support restrictive DRM measures in an MP3 file. While DRM-free music is available on iTunes, Apple chose to use the M4A audio format, although many portable devices now support this format. For unlimited download services, these stores either use Microsoftâ€™s own Window Media format or use their own audio codec and DRM system. In order to play DRM protected music, the player must support the DRM system, e.g. Microsoft’s WMA DRM for Rhapsody.
Track / Album Pricing â€“ When one purchases a â€˜permanent downloadâ€™ track by the album or single, they often pay as much as if they bought the same music in the shops. With singles where a consumer only wants specific songs from an album, the music shop can work out much cheaper since the user is not forking out for full albums just for the titles they want. However as the music labels donâ€™t have to fork out for replication costs, transport, rent, staff (for high street shops) or other costs involved in replicating and selling CDs, the music labels get a bigger chunk from online music download shops.
â€˜Unlimited Downloadsâ€™ consequences â€“ In an aim to offer what some shops claim to be the ideal alternative to illegal file sharing, unlimited downloads for a flat monthly fee at first seems like a good bargain. Unfortunately, they have several major drawbacks: The consumer loses all their music if they cancel their subscription unless they paid for a permanent download for each track and album they want to keep. Very few portable music devices support the Janus DRM technology that is used with â€˜unlimited downloadâ€™ subscriptions since Microsoftâ€™s Janus DRM is incompatible with portable audio devices that only support Microsoftâ€™s earlier DRM versions up until version 9. Finally, this music cannot be burned to CD without forking out the regular price for each track or album the user wants to burn to CD.
OS & Player limitation â€“ In order to authenticate the playback of tracks or players that these tracks are transferred to, the majority of music services require the user to use the service providerâ€™s own player or Windows Media Player to be able to listen to their music. While Windows Media Player has quite a number of features and supports customisation and plug-inâ€™s, many consumers still prefer to use their own software to playback music. The software required to playback these tracks or transfer to the consumer’s playback devices are often OS dependant, such as WMA DRM music which is limited to Windows.
Guide to choosing a music download shop
The main thing to watch out for when choosing an online music service is to ensure that the shop uses a format that is compatible with your MP3 player (if you have one). If the service offers an subscription based “Unlimited download” service, the player must also support their DRM. The main three audio codecâ€™s in use include MP3, Appleâ€™s AAC and Microsoftâ€™s WMA:
MP3 - The vast majority of music download services now offer their music in the MP3 format, which can be played on all modern portable audio players, MP3 car stereos and most phones and all Smartphones.
AAC (M4A/M4P) â€“ Apple uses MPEG4 audio that in the past use to be protected by its own proprietary DRM system known as FairPlay. So far Apple has not yet licensed out its DRM system and the only players that are compatible with AAC are Appleâ€™s own iPod series. However, most music available on iTunes is now DRM-free and thus can be played on any portable player capable of playing the M4A format, including most Smartphones with a suitable app. AAC is often regarded as having superior sound quality to WMA and Atrac3.
ATRAC3 â€“ Like Apple, Sony Connect uses their own proprietary audio codec and DRM technology also, which can only be played back on Sonyâ€™s own branded handheld digital audio players. However, this format no longer appears to be in use by any music download service.
WMA â€“ WMA is the most widely used codec by unlimited music download stores including Rhapsody, Yahoo and many others. While Microsoft does license its DRM technology out to different brands of manufacturers, so far Sony and Apple refuse to take on WMA support in their players, which means that if you have an iPod or Sony portable audio device, then chances are that it will not work with Windows Media based music services. Note that the iPod Touch & iPhone can play WMA DRM with a suitable app, such as Rhapsody’s own App for their music service. There are currently a wide range of portable audio devices and MP3 players on the market that support WMA DRM. A few examples include iRiver, iAudio, Creative, Rio and most Smartphones with a suitable App.
WMA Janus â€“ This is the most recent DRM format introduced by Microsoft. The main difference between this and regular WMA is the DRM technology. WMA Janus uses a new DRM technology that supports time limited music such as that offered by unlimited download services. Just be warned that Janus DRM is incompatible with portable audio devices that only support up to WMA DRM Version 9. WMA Janus is also known as WMA Version 10, although pretty much every modern audio player that handles WMA DRM will handle the latest verison.
The main drawback with DRM is when consumers want to take their music on the move, where the consumer must ensure the player they purchase matches their storeâ€™s DRM system or vice versa.
For those who still have DRM protected music from years ago when most music stores still DRM protected individual song & album purchases, a very simple way to unlock purchased music is to burn it to CD and rip it back off in the preferred format, however this does not work for music downloaded as part of an ‘unlimited download’ subscription. This method is often the only way to play certain DRM-crippled music on an MP3-only player or other player that does not support the DRM system the shops uses. For example an iPod will not play music purchased during the time Napster DRM protected individual song/album purchases, however if one burns their music to CD and rips it back off into MP3, these will play on an iPod, although this workaround may not work if the user can no longer authenticate the DRM, e.g. after an OS reinstall, where the music service has closed down their DRM servers.
Guide to avoiding scams and other con websites
Even though there is a wide selection of music download shops to choose from, most novice users and even those familiar with online shops would not know how to determine which sites are genuine and which ones are not. Some scam and con websites claim that their services are legal since they effectively sell their â€˜serviceâ€™ and are not responsible for the music that is transferred through the â€˜serviceâ€™ they offer. For example, many scammers trick consumers into paying for freely available software such as BitTorrent or even obsolete Limewire, Kazaa, etc products.
The following tips mention techniques that are generally only used by scammers and sites that falsely trick consumers into paying to access file sharing networks that are freely available. Use these before you enter your E-mail address, register or join a service or website, not to mention pulling out your credit card :
[li]See if you can browse their music library. A few legitimate services such as iTunes require the user to download software first in order to do so, however there should be no need to subscribe first. A simple test is to try browsing their music service. If you keep getting presented with a page asking to join or register without being able to browse anything, then this is a very clear sign of a scam.
[/li][li]If a search feature is available, try typing in a few made up keywords of random letters. If results are returned for which a big search provider such as Google would return nothing, then the search results are almost certainly fake, as it is a clearn sign that the website is using this to luring in unsuspecting visitors.
[/li][li]Check if you can download their software. Pretty much all legitimate sites I’m aware of allow the consumer to download the software without having to sign up first. A few examples include Real, iTunes and so on. The main purpose here is to get users to see if they can find their favourite music in their library. Any website asking to join or register just to download their software has been a scam in every case I have seen so far. Note that while Real appears to charge for their software to download it, they do have a limited free version available.
[/li][li]Have a look for preview tracks. Pretty much all legal music services offer samples of their music in an aim to lure in customers. Most scam websites donâ€™t offer any previews, let alone show a list of artists and titles they have.
[/li][li]Find out the track pricing. Very few music services just offer an unlimited subscription service without selling songs individually. For example Rhapsody offers an unlimited download service for a flat fee, but also charges one for individual songs in order to record them to CD or keep them permanently.
[/li][li]Check the site for screenshots of their software, such as in the help section. Most legitimate sites show screenshots of how to use their software. Of course if you can download their software, then this step is not necessary.
[/li][li]Finally, hover your mouse over the various tabs and links on the main page. If you keep seeing the same URL over and over for most links such as something ending with â€œ/join.phpâ€, then this is another clear sign of the site being a scam or con.
[/li][/ol]A very quick check that gives most scams away is to go to their homepage and compare the URLâ€™s that show in the status bar when the mouse is hovered over the following links: â€œDownload Nowâ€, â€œMusicâ€, â€œMoviesâ€ and â€œGet Accessâ€. If these four (or which ever are present) all point to the same URL, then go elsewhere! If the status bar is hidden, then click on each of these links to see where they bring you to. If they all land you on a registration page, then avoid!