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Buying Music Online

Among the megasites, many allow you to buy music online. Currently, online shopping for music is in a Neanderthal stage of development. Most sites, such as Amazon.com, only allow you to buy a pre-pressed CD, which shows up at your house a few days later via UPS or mail. Sites slightly higher on the evolutionary scale, such as towerrecords.com, riffage.com, and musicmaker.com, let you pick songs from different artists and burn you a custom CD with your personally chosen mix of tracks. Okay, that's nice, but it shows how the record companies are still mired in The Way Things Used to Be.

It's as if they can't imagine selling music any way except on real, hard CDs that must be sent from one end of the country to another on planes, trains, and delivery trucks. It's like settling down to watch a pay-per-view movie on cable, paying for it, and then being told you can watch it in three days when it arrives on a videotape.

Right now only a handful of music sites offer CDs and tracks for sale and immediate download over the Internet. One of the best sites for immediate gratification from sucking down BYAHO track by track is emusic.com. Finding a particular artist or album is chancy, but if you page through the alphabetical listings, you'll find performers you recognize. Just in the A's are Ian Anderson, Average White Band, and April Wine. Okay. Not the hottest acts this century, but you can download Liquid Audio or .WMA tracks recorded at an excellent 120 bits a second for 99 cents each.

Earlier in 2000, two of the big name labels, Sony and BMG, announced plans to offer their catalogs for sale as downloadable files. But the companies are experimenting with different types of copy protection and different music formats. By the time you read this, there should be more BYAHO songs sold for immediate download, but don't expect it to be straightforward until the labels figure out exactly how to do it.

Search Wizards

If you can't find the band you love, love the band you find. When some search engines don't come up with a match to what you're looking for–or even when it does–the engines suggest songs and artists who are supposed to be similar to what you asked for. Sometimes the results are tenuous. A failed search for Barry White at one engine drew suggestions that I might like, instead, to listen to Orson Welles. Yes, sir. Nothing's better for that romantic evening than a fat man reciting Shakespeare. Usually the suggestions aren't that silly, and the search wizards are particularly helpful when you're trying to find the hidden gems among indie sites.

Part of the reason more sites don't offer pay-per-track downloads is the cost of processing a credit card charge. The 99 cent charge costs as much to process as $20 for an entire CD. One site, Mjuice.com, handles the problem by letting you charge Mjuice Dollars–as little as $2 at a time. Then you can download songs, some as cheap as a quarter, until you run out of Mjuice bucks. A record of your purchases are kept with your account so that if, for example, your hard drive dies, you can redownload the song without paying for it again. Another marketing plan you'll see sites experiment with is subscriptions. Ministryofsound.com has two plans, one $10 a month, the other $24.95 for three months. With the subscription, you can download anything from a certain collection, to which about 10 songs a week are added. Don't expect these to be the current top ten from Rolling Stone's best-seller list.

This situation is changing. Several record labels have announced partnerships with online music sites to sell their music as downloads. A lot of the credit for this breakthrough in common sense goes to Liquid Audio, whose versatile copy protection/compression format gives the record executives control over how music is protected. More importantly, it and Microsoft's secure .WMA format are security blankets so the execs don't feel they're giving away the store. But until the record industry finally makes its peace with the Internet, searching for pay-per-track downloads is for people who have very little left to do in life. Using a PC to page through pay sites manually is really contrary to what computers are all about. They're supposed to do dull, monotonous, detailed tasks that would take humans hours, all in a matter of seconds. Why, you ask, can't software do my searching? And as long as you asked, the answer is in the next paragraph.

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