BitDepth 597 - October 09

Trying out Amazon's new MP3 music store was frustrating fun.
Amazon trickles into the digital music market

Hard to find music is a good fit for digital distribution, matching customers with albums that would cost too much to reissue.

Amazon hasn't been the most profitable company in the distribution business, but it has created a system that is the envy of anyone engaged in Internet commerce. The company's database, a smart, continuously self-analysing tool that tracks what each customer views and buys, is the secret of its success, but most people don't see the engineering and programming, they just see more stuff to buy that's offered with the intuition of a talented concierge.
So Amazon's entry into the digital music market, even a tentative basis over a week ago, was the biggest news to hit online sales of music since the iTunes store hit its first million sales.
Even more intriguingly, Amazon isn't selling the Digital Rights Management (DRM) protected music that most of its competitors have been hawking. Amazon's music is high-bitrate (256kbps) MP3 files which appear to only carry an easily found order number.

Given the paranoia that's gripped the music industry since the original Napster stripmined their revenue streams and corporate executives took their first lurching steps toward feeding the growing online market with legal music, it's almost certain that there will be digital watermarking in these files that will allow industry watchdogs to track who puts what up on peer to peer sharing sites after shopping at Amazon.
Like the iTunes Music Store and other digital music providers, Amazon restricts who can buy this music to the geographic United States, a hobbling that all legal music providers have been forced to comply with. The reason advanced for this are the archaic publishing restrictions imposed by the music industry, who still view music as contractually bound to a particular location.

Buying online
Early in the dance though, Amazon was pretty cool about allowing purchases and I was able to grab a few songs. Clever shoppers will quickly figure out how to get around the company's still somewhat loose restrictions on sales.
The music that's on offer tends to be either brand-new hits or much older, back catalogue material that will be of great interest to music collectors looking for hard to find releases. There's also a lot of karaoke and "tribute" covers that almost nobody will be interested in.

I found an album I'd never heard of before, a 1988 concert at the Montreaux Jazz Festival of Carlos Santana and Wayne shorter when both were at the height of their jazz fusion prowess.
The high bit-rate transfer booms clean and crisp music on my system, using iTunes on my laptop filtered through SRS System's iWow audio enhancer and pumped into an Altec Lansing 5.1 speaker system.
It's possible that the CD version, run through a state of the art system would be better, but this sounds really good.

The players and the process
At this stage of the game, Amazon is a competitor for E-Music, which also sells DRM-free tracks with a heavy focus on independent labels. The Amazon MP3 download service launched with two million tracks, far less than the six million that the iTunes store boasts today, but the selection is growing. The tracks are culled from independent labels, EMI and Universal, but there is nothing from Warner or Sony, at least not yet.

Finding stuff was mildly annoying. The savvy that Amazon has invested its regular store with isn't to be found in the MP3 store. Searching for a band like Grand Funk Railroad will turn up pages of listings, but buying a song or album is pretty easy. You can listen to a brief clip from the song then just click the addictive "Buy now" button. 
Prices average USD$0.89 but can be as low as 45cents or as expensive as $1.94. Cherry picking music is a little trickier, requiring some paging back and forth to get all the stuff you want. Adding to the potential for chaos, some songs and a few albums are only available if you buy the whole album download.

Downloading the music
After Amazon confirms your purchase, a tiny file (roughly 10kb) with an ".amz" extension is transferred to your computer. The file is a trigger for the Amazon downloader application, which you must install for the Mac or Windows separately.
The software reads the information in the file and can be set to either downloads your music to a folder or transfer it directly to either iTunes or Windows Media Player. The already embedded album art is a nice touch and a nod to listeners who like to browse their music visually, sifting through album covers instead of lists.

For all the new service's nifty goodness, it's still only as good as the music industry wants it to be. Even with the removal of DRM and the power of Amazon behind it, digital music sales still lag far behind the evolved elegance of a music CD and the wanton freeness of torrents and peer to peer downloads.
Why, for instance, are digital music sales still artificially restricted by territories when CDs are not?
An Amazon or iTunes service that genuinely served the world and offered music in the virtual world as accessibly as it does in regular stores would be an explosive revolution in music distribution both for artists and fans. 
The Amazon MP3 service is fun, but is remains a keyhole view into a panorama of possibilities.
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