March 19, 2004

music downloads

At online stores, tills are alive with sound of music downloads

March 17, 2004 06:08

At online stores, tills are alive with sound of music downloads
Chicago Tribune

By James Coates

I'm from the crowd that thinks hip-hop describes a wrestling move and that Ice T is a beverage that one can get for a 50 Cent piece. I do, of course, know who Britney Spears is. Nobody is that old.

So what follows is an admittedly incomplete look at just two players in the amazing new music download industry. Apple's iTunes Music store ( and's BuyMusic ( are far more than places where kids can get their pop music without having to walk through an actual mall to a record store. They are amazing digital treasure houses of classical and pop performances for the rest of us.

I prefer Apple, followed by BuyMusic, but whichever provider you select, cultural miracles reside behind the Top 40 tunes that have dominated legitimate downloaded music since the Recording Industry of America grudgingly allowed Apple to lead the way with 99-cent downloads.

Competing download stores not covered here include Music, and the new, legal

These stores typically offer 500,000-plus titles, which include a lot but far from all recordings ever made. Classical and historical collections are huge but still limited _ some but not all of Bing Crosby, a little Liszt and just the bare bones for Beethoven.

Some background on how we got here:

By the mid-1990s, PCs and Macs started including CD drives and software that would "rip" tunes from music CDs into data files called MP3s. This led to a global pirate network of younger folks starting Internet file-sharing Web sites like Napster and Morpheus.

It blossomed into a global storehouse of downloadable music that cost absolutely nothing. After a couple of years, the courts ruled this was outrageous piracy and the music studios started slapping lawsuits on offenders.

In that climate, Apple stunned the marketplace when CEO-for-life Steve Jobs cut deals with top studios to allow downloads on Macs for a steep but endurable 99 cents per tune.

Jobs won over the folks whom Madonna was calling The Suits because the Mac audience is a gnat to Microsoft's gigantic rhinoceros beetle. (We'll get to the Beatles in a second).

The Recording Industry Association of America knew it would be politically safe to pull the plug if the iTunes store proved to be just another source of files for the peer-to-peer pirates to swap.

Instead, Apple's music store became the hottest thing in the recording industry since the drum machine. The store netted millions from Day One, even when only Macs could use it. Sales of iPod portable music players have become so huge that one must wonder whether Apple is going to morph into a record store.

There were, of course, holdouts.

Bob Dylan said Jobs was blowing in the wind, and the Beatles said it would be a hard day's night before gems like the White Album would be downloaded by any of the lonely people, Eleanor Rigby, too.

Meanwhile, at Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters, programmers worked furiously to transpose the hands-down superb iTunes music software for Macintosh OS 10 into a nearly identical program for Windows XP and 2000.

It was a mighty day when iTunes for Windows was added to Apple's company store for free download. Now just about every PC user with a reasonably modern machine and a Web link can revel in the cultural ecstasies brought by instant access to 500,000 pieces of music, each offered for 99 cents.

As I sampled iTunes and's Internet music store, this column took much longer to research than really necessary. Working in my home office, jumping from tune to tune in 30-second snippets proved addicting.

You can sit there, as I did, and recall pleasant musical memories. One minute it was Barbra Streisand asking "Have I Stayed Too Long At the Fair," and the next it was an unidentified pianist with the London Symphony playing the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat minor.

Let's leave the sunny side of the street and briefly deal with the complex rules for use. The file formats involved can appear dark as a dungeon at a casual glance.

Regarding portable digital players, the iTunes store's music only works with Apple's iPods for Mac or Windows users. The iPods are great but costly and even hard to get right now.

For Windows, iTunes uses the new MP4 format. That also can be converted to Apple's own encrypted AAC files for play on a Mac. A downloaded song can only be used on three computers.

Similar rules apply at BuyMusic, which uses the Windows-encrypted WMA format and plays on Microsoft's Windows Music Player 9 and portables from Rio, RCA, Creative Labs and others.

The good news is that both operations let users burn their purchased tunes onto CDs in the standard CDA format. These can be burned back into MP3 files if you're a gearhead like some computer columnists I know who could use a shave.

And yes, boys and girls, you can then post them on Kazaa.

But why ruin a good thing?


Posted by Craig at March 19, 2004 06:51 PM