Last Monday, Apple launched the iTunes Music Store in Europe, covering the UK, France and Germany, with a typically Apple-esque event. Steve Jobs came over (and, as far as I can tell, didn’t actually do any interviews – what a waste of time), and the coverage Apple got was incredible, with every broadcast TV station highlighting it on their main evening shows.
Obviously, I signed up as quickly as possible, and Apple will be happy to hear that I’ve already bought more music from it than I’ve bought from any other store in the past year – a total of eight full albums and twelve individual songs. That also easily eclipses Napster, which I’ve been using since its launch and have bought a total of three albums from.
So how do the two services compare? Well first the good news for Apple: I much prefer purchasing music in its AAC format, and not just because I use an iPod. AAC has less restrictive conditions for its DRM, and the sound quality is actually as good as WMA, which is the reverse of my usual opinion (when I’ve compared CDs that I’ve ripped in both WMA and AAC formats, WMA almost always wins out). Buying is also ludicrously easy.
But at present, for anyone not tied into an iPod and not bothered about the DRM conditions, I’d recommend Napster over the iTunes Store. First of all, and perhaps most surprisingly, Napster is far more enticing to use and explore. Most albums and artists come with profiles and information that goes way beyond what Apple has, except where an artist is a “featured artist” on iTMS (and at present, there are about five of those on the Euro-store). While iMixes are fun to explore, they’re not as interesting as the “related artists” content on Napster.
Secondly, because Napster uses a “play whatever you want” subscription model, it is far, far easy to explore and discover new music on it than on iTMS. Suppose I want to listen to the new album by a band I’ve never heard of. With Napster, I just listen to it streamed – and if I like it, I can either download it for offline play, or buy it for burning or transferring to a portable player. With iTunes, I have only one choice: buy it and hope for the best. Or, more likely, rip some of it off from Limewire or Acquisition and – if I think it’s worth the money – buy it from iTunes.
What’s interesting about this is how it’s affected my buying. Of the albums I’ve bought on iTunes, not one has been from an artist that’s new to me. Instead, they’ve largely been replacements for vinyl records that I lost years ago (“October” by U2, for example), or new albums from artists that I know I like (“To The 5 Boroughs” by Beastie Boys). Of the three albums I’ve bought on Napster, two have been by artists that were completely new to me.
I’d suspect that this pattern is repeated a lot, and if so it suggests that new artists would be better off getting their work on Napster, where users can actually hear and buy, rather than iTMS.
The final advantage that Napster has over iTMS at the moment is content. I don’t know what each company is claiming as a number of tracks on their services, but searching for artists on iTMS is often a frustrating experience, and not only with independents (who are still baulking at Apple’s terms and conditions, and so aren’t on the store). You might not expect to expect to find Campag Velocet on either store, but you’d certainly expect Frank Zappa.
What’s most strange is that where the iTMS has an artist, Napster usually has more of their work. Want the new PJ Harvey album? There’s one track on iTMS, and the whole album on Napster. The same goes for Scissor Sisters. For Pink Floyd, iTMS lists 11 albums, while Napster lists 39, with iTMS missing obvious ones like “The Wall”. And the list goes on.
My experience with iTMS was also marred by two annoying bugs, both of which I reported to Apple immediately (and have heard nothing about since). Very rarely, an album will claim it is no longer available when you try to buy it, despite being available. And iTunes’ “Check for purchased music” option is flaky, and sometimes claims you haven’t got any bought music when you’ve got it on another machine. But these issues will no doubt get ironed out in time.
Still, even when iTMS gets more content, I still think Apple is missing a trick with not having a streamed subscription option, which allows you to explore far more new music legally and actually find new artists. iTMS will be great if you are middle-aged and just want to buy all that old stuff you never bought on CD, plus that new Jamie Callum thing your mates all like. Personally, I’ll carry o subscribing to Napster – but when I find something I like, I’ll try and buy it on iTMS, so I can put it on my iPod. If it’s there, of course.
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