All hell is breaking loose with online digital music sales. Last month, Amazon announced that it will enter the fray, challenging iTunes' hegemony. Two weeks ago, Apple debuted iTunes Plus, a service that sells high-resolution, restriction-free downloads. The launch is in collaboration with EMI, the first major to offer files without Digital Rights Management (DRM).
This means that iTunes users can now download and burn N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton as often as they like. They can print a color copy of the booklet. They can pass an infinite number of high-def recordings of "Fuck tha Police" to their buddies without having to worry about the Man.
According to Apple kingpin Steve Jobs, these moves bring us closer to "a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players."
But that world already exists, both at eMusic.com and in the so-called "digital underground," where online indie stores and labels are thriving. Cyber-retail's future is most clear in these small but bustling shops. They offer amazing sound samples, dish out opinions on the music, and toss in weekly charts that keep listeners in step with the rest of their subculture.
Here are some of the best the Web has to offer:
Who: Bleep is the online shop for Warp Records, the legendary electronic music label from the U.K. In addition to nearly every track Warp has released, Bleep sells music from hundreds of labels, including French house stalwart Ed Banger and Detroit's hiss-and-pop techno label Ghostly International.
Product: Bleep deals in high-quality MP3s (320 kbps) and sells them for $1.35 per track or $9.99 per album. For a higher price, Bleep offers a growing number of its releases as FLAC files, an open-source, lossless compression format that's becoming industry standard (although iTunes does not recognize them).
Interactivity: Warp's biggest hit this year is Battles' Mirrored. I ponied up $9.99 and within five minutes had a sturdy copy of the album. Its squirrelly instrumentals sound excellent, and I can now dub it for my pals with a clear conscience.
Downside: The site was created by the Designers Republic, who often choose form over function. That said, Bleep is user-friendly. Click on an icon for !!!'s Myth Takes, and a list of songs appears. Click on "play" to sample it. Within seconds, the entire song loads and plays in 30-second increments, allowing users to sample different sections of the song.
Who: Long a tastemaker as a store in New York and an online mail-order site, Other Music debuted Other Music Digital in April.
Product: The shop's portal is overflowing with fringe jazz, psychedelia, electronica, and avant rock, offering high-quality MP3 files (320 kbps) from hundreds of labels across the globe. Cost: $1.11 per song.
Interactivity: The digital store has some kinks. Before I bought the new Lavender Diamond, Imagine Our Love, a page recommended that I use the download manager. I did, but it failed to launch after purchase. I then had to download each song track by track, which was time-consuming.
Downside: Browsing is a little difficult, which is frustrating, because Other Music features well-written recommendations. It needs better organization.
Who: This online shop is operated by the owners of Thrill Jockey, a Chicago imprint that's home to Tortoise and Trans Am.
Product: Fina offers a solid-but-small collection of labels, including Rune Grammofon, a gem for German electronica, and IDM mainstay Ersatz Audio. At $10 per release, Thrill Jockey offers variable-bit-rate MP3s, a thrifty way to compress files to achieve maximum fidelity.
Interactivity: It's very efficient, which makes sense. Thrill Jockey was an early proponent of restriction-free files. The label sells its files on most major online stores: iTunes, eMusic, and Rhapsody (and deals with Other Music and Bleep as well).
Downside: Fina doesn't sell individual tracks, and the selection is limited. But the shop is due to add music from 30 more labels in coming months.
Who: Kompakt Records' online store is the most beautiful online store I've ever seen.
Product: The selection is deep, if you dig German minimalism. A freak could get lost in here: early jacked-out jams from Mike Ink and Thomas Brinkmann, dubby tech-house from Poker Flat Records, and a huge pile of epic stompers from Ricardo Villalobos. And about a billion other songs. Cost: 1.39 Euros per song or $11.99 for an album in a decent MP3 format (224 kbps).
Interactivity: Efficient Teutonic design commands your attention. When sampling songs, you can click your cursor anywhere on the player to hit a different part of the song. It's like dropping a needle on a record. You can find the breaks; you can skip the sappy introductions.
Downside: It's pricey. You're paying in Euros, and the dollar is crap right now. I bought a DJ Koze mix, All People Is My Friends, along with a great dance-floor throwdown by Simon Baker called "The Fly," and it cost $18.39. But hey, spiritual experiences are supposed to be expensive, and unlimited access to Kompakt's collection is priceless.