Over the course of the past year, music downloading has gone from illegal to legit, from college students swapping music files of dubious provenance to adults purchasing 99 cents songs sanctioned by the major record labels. Sure, contraband downloads still outnumber the lawful ones by a wide margin, but what could be more mass-market than picking up a Napster (ROXI) gift card at your local Rite Aid (RAD) or an Apple iTunes card at Target (TGT)?
What made this possible was Apple Computer's (AAPL) groundbreaking agreement with the major music labels last April to sell encrypted versions of their songs to Mac users. That opened up the vaults, and other music software and online subscription music services were quick to follow. The best known are Apple's iTunes Music Store, for both Mac and PC users, and Roxio, with its newly acquired Napster brand -- a squeaky-clean reincarnation of the pioneer of illegal music downloads. Musicmatch Downloads and the RealPlayer Music Store (RNWK) aren't far behind. In coming months retailers Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), Virgin Group, and Amazon.com (AMZN) will launch their own online stores.
If you're a novice at shopping for digital music online, you should know about the rules that come with the now-legal downloads. They're pretty easy to live with. You can download, store, and play your purchased songs on three different computers. You can copy the songs to an MP3 player. You essentially can copy, or burn, the individual tracks to an unlimited number of CDs. For compilations, or playlists -- an entire album, say -- you're limited to five CDs, or 10 in the case of those purchased from Apple. But simply change one of the tracks on the CD, and you'll find the counter starts over again.
You can browse any of the four stores free of charge, but not with an ordinary Web browser -- you have to download special software from each to do it. The software is designed to help you manage your music: Organize it by artist or album, play it on your PC, copy it from your own music CDs, and burn it to CDs or move it to a music player. It also acts as the gateway to the stores.
If you've bought or intend to buy an Apple iPod, your best bet is to start with Apple's iTunes and its music store. It's the easiest to use, with one-click downloads, a powerful search engine, and features to help you find your kind of music, such as what other listeners bought and Billboard top hits charts back to 1946. When it comes to transferring your music to an iPod, nothing could be easier: Plug the iPod into your Mac or Windows computer and all your new songs are copied to the player automatically.
It's no secret that Apple sees its music store as a way to sell more iPods, but that's a problem if you don't own an iPod. Songs downloaded from the iTunes store won't play on any device other than Apple's own, and getting around that is tedious. You have to burn your Apple tunes to a CD and then transfer them from that CD back to the computer in a format -- usually MP3 or WMA -- that your player understands.
You can also just buy your music from a different store. Both Musicmatch and Napster sell songs encoded with Microsoft's (MSFT) WMA format, which can play on virtually all new music players. RealPlayer's music store, like Apple's, encodes its tunes in a format known as AAC, but Apple and RealPlayer use different copy-protection schemes. So RealPlayer's songs can't play on Apple iPods, either. These three sell subscription music services as well. Still, you can browse for free, listening to 30-second clips and buying songs you want for 99 cents each or about $10 for most albums.
Or you can sign up for the premium services for $4.95 a month at Musicmatch or $9.95 a month at Napster and Real. They're designed to broadcast music over your computer, a kind of subscription radio. The advantage for shoppers? You can hear the whole song before you buy it. For the extra fee, Musicmatch and Real also let you program and save your own channels, setting up a playlist, for example, of all the songs by a single artist. Because its store and subscription service are tightly integrated into a single program, the Musicmatch program works better for buyers than Real's Rhapsody service and its separate music store.
Napster's twist is that you can rent music as well as buy it. For your $9.95 monthly fee, you can download an unlimited number of songs or albums for listening offline, but they'll disappear from your computer if you let your subscription lapse. If you want to burn them to a CD or copy them to a portable player, you'll have to pony up the extra 99 cents per track to own them permanently.
Napster is the best deal if you just want to listen to music on your computer. But for songs to go, especially if you have an iPod, Apple's store is still the friendliest and easiest place to shop. By Larry Armstrong