Amazon Offers Downloads Without DRM

On September 25, Amazon announced that its Amazon MP3 download store was open as a "public beta" test. Amazon claims it has "more than two million songs by more than 180,000 artists from over 20,000 major and independent labels," which makes it somewhat less diverse than Apple's iTunes Store, which claims six million songs. However, Amazon MP3 has a few advantages in its corner: its MP3s are higher-resolution, variable bit-rate 256kpbs with no digital rights management—and they are cheaper, 89–99¢ per track, as opposed to iTunes' 99¢ for its 128kbps AAC files (or $1.29 for iTunes+ files, which are DRM-free and 256kbps AAC files).

The lack of DRM means that Amazon MP3 files can be used on all computers and personal digital players. The pricing scheme means that most recordings are substantially cheaper than at the iTunes Store. A classical recording, such as the LSO/Rostropovich reading of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, with only four movements, cost $3.56 (it's $7.99 at iTunes), while Lyle Lovett's latest, It's Not Big, It's Large, which has 12 tracks, costs $8.99 ($10.99 at iTunes).

The real key to Apple's domination of the download and personal portable scene, as we have remarked repeatedly, is not that it offers the cheapest product (it generally does not), nor the best-engineered (many audiophiles prefer the sound quality of Creative's PDPs)—Apple rules the digital world because of its interface's ease of use. If Amazon wants to go head-to-head with Apple, it will have to match that.

I found that it pretty much does. I already have a 1-Click account at amazon.com, so I didn't have to fill out any account information, I only had to download Amazon's MP3 Downloader (for Mac, a 615kB download), restart my Web browser, and start shopping.

Downloads are automatically snagged by MP3 Downloader and added to the user's music library, complete with album art and metadata. For most of the music I downloaded, the metadata was clear and correct—the exception being the Shostakovich, where the "artist" field identified the composer as Rostropovich. Of course, at the iTunes Store, the artist was identified as "London Symphony Orchestra," which is technically correct, but not helpful for most serious classical fans.

Looking at the downloaded files, all of them weighed in around 208kbps to 256kbps VBR MP3 files. Sound quality was crisp and extremely good, even for dynamic and atmospheric music, such as the Shostakovich and Pink Floyd's Meddle.

Amazon MP3 looks ready to flourish—at least in terms of sound quality and ease of use. Where it remains vulnerable is in selection. Neither SonyBMG or Warner have signed on to the non-DRM concept, and Universal Music Group is calling it an "experiment," which it will reconsider after 90 days. If UMG pulls out, Amazon will only have EMI out of the big four labels. Don't write Amazon off yet, though—in mid-September, Warner CEO Edgar Bronfman, he who once swore his label would never abandon DRM, told Goldman Sachs investors that he was considering removing DRM from Warner's downloads. Why the change of heart? Apple scares him more than file-sharers do.

Keep in mind that, while Amazon MP3 files are DRM-free, they can be watermarked, which can raise both privacy and sonic concerns—pre-beta rumors indicated that Amazon had considered embedding "transactional watermarks," which would have included account information, into downloads (iTunes+ downloads do contain account information). Currently, EMI is not embedding watermarks in its Amazon MP3 downloads, although UMG is, but only an identifier that indicates which music store was the source of the file (UMG also offers DRM-free MP3s through BestBuy, RealNetworks, and Puretracks).

Will Amazon MP3 finally offer the iTunes Store real competition? The next few months should tell the story, but if Amazon can avoid going over to the dark side (transactional watermarking), while increasing selection, it might become the first-look source for a lot of music lovers—this one, for example.

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