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Competition is clicking in music

The sanctioned online retailers, iTunes and have plenty of bargains without a monthly fee, but how much of a selection do they offer?

August 07, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Downloading music from major record companies on the Internet is nothing new, but now you can do it without being a criminal.

Currently there are two major, sanctioned online retailers that offer hundreds of thousands of songs or even whole symphonies for download to home computers, for pay. Unlike feeble, early attempts online by the big record companies, these new services -- and the iTunes Music Store -- offer a large selection without monthly service fees.

They aim to not just battle music downloading -- which has been done illegally by an estimated 60 million U.S. computer users -- but also cash in on it.

We put them to the test by searching on each for the same 30 music selections, including top pop hits such as Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" and longtime favorites such as the Eagles' "New Kid in Town."

We also looked for popular choices in country, rap, Latin, house, hard rock, oldies and classical music, plus some music that is labeled "alternative," such as Fountains of Wayne's "Bright Future in Sales."

Finally, we threw in a couple of rarities, such as an accordion rendition of "It's a Small World," as played by a former star of the Lawrence Welk orchestra. (It was not available -- you can decide if that's a good or bad thing.)

The tests were done on the two online music sellers that debuted this year, as well as a third, smaller shop: and Liquid. com can be used on Windows-based computers, while iTunes is accessed with Internet software only available for Macintosh computers.

Officials at Apple Computer, which operates the iTunes store, say they will have a Windows version set to go online by the end of the year.

Because and iTunes have agreements with all the major music companies, the songs offered on them are much the same. The big difference is what you can do with the music once it's in your computer. In general, the iTunes shop places far fewer restrictions on burning it onto CDs, downloading it to portable music players and transferring it to other computers., from the Liquid Audio company, offers selections from some majors and independent labels that and iTunes don't have. But's site is undergoing badly needed renovation.

"I'd be the first to admit that the customer experience is not what it should be," said Ole Obermann, who was appointed Monday as the site's general manger. "We are working on it."

(For results of how many of our selections were found -- including costs and restrictions -- see the accompanying chart.), iTunes and aim to steer online music downloaders away from the free file-sharing services pioneered by Napster. That service was closed in 2001 by the federal courts, but there are still plenty of networks where individuals can trade music files at no cost.

The sanctioned shops don't yet offer anywhere near the wide range of music that can be obtained from illegal networks. But for those who want to buy legally, the online retailers have hundreds of thousands of selections that can be downloaded for fees ranging from about 80 cents to $1.50. The shops differ from existing subscription music services, such as Pressplay and MusicNow, in that they don't charge a monthly fee.

The major retailers and iTunes work generally well, with some glitches and annoyances. As for, it's too early to know what the buyer experience will be after renovations.

The buying process on is clunky, requiring several steps, while on iTunes -- where purchases can be made with a couple of clicks -- the search engine is somewhat quirky.

Do a search on "Creed," a hard-rock band, on iTunes and it turns up several songs by veteran crooner Johnny Mathis. An Apple spokeswoman said the glitch is perhaps caused by the word "creed" popping up on the Mathis albums' liner notes.

In fact, there are no songs by Creed on any of the big online music shops. But there aren't any songs by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or numerous other legendary bands, either.

Indeed, the biggest problem faced by the online shops, apart from the fact that their chief competitors are the unauthorized free networks, is that there are huge gaps in their stock. This is due in part to the cumbersome process of obtaining the rights from labels, songwriters and, in the case of top acts such as the Rolling Stones, the artists.

Some of the top current recordings on the Billboard charts -- including the No. 1 country single, "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" performed by Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett, and the Timo Maas remix of Tori Amos' "Don't Make Me Come to Vegas," a dance-club hit -- are not available from the shops.

There are gaps in oldies too. Elvis Presley's cover version of "Rip It Up" can be found, but the explosive, original performance by Little Richard cannot.

Classical music is pretty much a disaster on the online shops. Selection is poor and the segmentation of the music causes problems.

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