Music subscriptions, such as those offered by eMusic.com and Yahoo! Music Unlimited can help you save a substantial amount of money by offering a lower price/per song ratio than iTunes. Due to DRM restrictions, not all of them will work with your iPod, but with such a wide variety of online stores to choose from, it makes sense to do a little comparison shopping before handing over your credit card number.
When it comes to promotions, eMusic offers one of the best we've seen. It gives new members 50 free music downloads just for signing up. If you decide to stay, the site offers three subscription plans ranging from $9.99/month for 30 downloads a month to $19.99/month for 75 songs a month. If you typically buy 11 or more songs per month from iTunes, you're already saving money with eMusic. What we particularly like about eMusic is that its tracks are DRM-free (no Digital Rights Management), meaning once purchased they're yours to keep and they'll work on any device from an iPod to a Zune. What's the catch? Most of eMusic's contracts are with independent record labels. The "big four" — EMI, Universal, Warner Music, and Sony BMG — are not all represented, so eMusic's catalogue relies heavily on indie rock, jazz, and classical music. In other words, you might not find the latest 50 Cent single, but you will find Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, The Pixies, and more. eMusic also has a lot of editorial content, such as columns and editors' picks that make the site more than just a place to download tracks from.
With music offerings from the "big four," Amazon's MP3 store has the muscle power to stand up to the competition. The company offers an a la carte service with prices ranging from 89 cents to 99 cents per song. Full albums start at $5.99. Although that may not be much lower than iTunes, depending on the track, Amazon's MP3s are all DRM-free. That means you can burn store-bought songs to your heart's content. Amazon's music catalogue is an eclectic blend of indie and Top 40 tracks. At the time of this writing, seven of iTunes' Top Songs were also available for purchase on Amazon.com, making Amazon.com the best iTunes alternative for iPod owners.
Walmart's no frills approach at music downloads initially started with copyright-protected WMA tracks. However, this past August the retail giant announced a switch to DRM-free MP3s. You'll find songs that go for 94 cents a pop or full albums for as little as $9.22. Expect to find DRM-free tracks from both EMI and Universal, meaning you'll see everyone from Goldfrapp to Gwen Stefani. Walmart's MP3 downloader requires a Windows PC. (Got a Mac? Walmart recommends burning a CD from a PC and then ripping it, quite a lot of hassle.)
Yahoo! Music Unlimited
If you're looking for music that caters to the MTV crowd, you'll like Yahoo! Music Unlimited, which carries the latest tracks from artists like Fergie and Rihanna. However, Yahoo only works with PCs and it takes a different approach to music downloading. For $5.99/month you get access to Yahoo's entire music catalogue, but should you cancel your subscription, you lose your music. So rather than own the music, it's more of a rental service. If you want to buy certain tracks from their catalogue, you pay just 79 cents per song and that track is yours to keep. This is one of the least expensive monthly subscriptions we've seen and a great plan if you're constantly looking for new music. Just remember, signing up for the monthly plan here means you're renting, not buying.
Windows users looking to avoid a subscription plan can check out BuyMusic.com's a la carte service, which offers downloads for as little as 79 cents (albums start at $7.95). However, a look through the site's Top 100 will reveal BuyMusic.com's number one fault — inconsistent pricing. Here you'll see tracks selling from 79 cents to $1.09. All of BuyMusic.com's tracks are in WMA format, which means they're copyright protected and they will not play on a Mac or on your iPod. Nevertheless, BuyMusic.com has songs from all of the major music labels. You'll have to do some active searching to save money, but those 79-cent tracks are worth it once you find them.
You can't download the songs you listen to, but if it's new music you're looking for, Pandora lets you stream tunes straight from your Internet-enabled computer. What's particularly cool about this service is that it lets you rate the songs you like and those you dislike. It then uses those results to recommend new artists.
Another alternative, Slacker.com, works much like satellite radio in the sense that you choose from a list of preset, commercial-free stations. The stations range from Adult Alternative to UK Indie. You can block or skip up to 6 songs per hour, or sign up for their premium service and you have unlimited blocking privileges. Slacker is working on a Wi-Fi-enabled portable player that will sync with the online service and let you take your tunes on the road.
Louis Ramirez is a dealnews Features Editor.