Legal UK Music Downloads

By Pete | @kingpetey | 28 May 2004

Last week Roxio's Napster(here) launched in the UK for the first time as a legal music distribution service. Napster is one of many legitimate music site entering into the increasingly crowded market.

The most popular legal on-line music company currently is called On Demand Distribution (OD2) (here). This service is behind some of the big on-line music brands including My Coke Music, Ministry of Sound digital downloads, Virgin downloads, MSN music and HMV downloads.

I subscribed to the HMV (here) download site just over a month ago to check out the content and quality of service available. I choose HMV over the others at the time mainly because the site layout was the best, for instance the Ministry of sound site uses an awkward frame and the My Coke Music site seemed to cluttered. Other than they they all follow a similar design and serve the same content.

There are two different ways to purchase music through HMV, the first is through buying individual tracks similar to the way Apples iTunes (here) works, tracks start at about 99p and increase in price depending on the song. The second way to purchase tunes is through a subscription which is what I chose. The subscription offered is ?4.99 a month which entitles you to 500 credits per month.

The credits then let you do various things for instance to ? stream ? a song (listen to it once) normally costs 1 credit (roughly equivalent to 1p), to download a song costs 10 credits and to be able to permanently download a song so that you can burn it to a CD costs about 100 credits. Songs that are downloaded for 10 credits can only be listened to while you are subscribed to the service.

In my view the payment model is not very flexible, its certainly not over priced but say I wanted to purchase some extra credits one month I would have to order a second ?4.99 monthly package. There is no way to purchase an extra number of credits or choose my own monthly number of credits.

Some people may be more than happy just to pay for extra credits when needed (in blocks of say 500) when they ran out instead of the monthly charge. Currently only credit cards are accepted (Visa and Mastercard etc), no debit cards (Switch Solo etc) are accepted which does limit the audience to only people with access to credit cards.

For a music site to be successful clearly what is important is the content rather then the pricing model. I have looked quite carefully into various different on-line download sites including E-music (here) and Napster for the music I'm interested - dance/trance.

E-music does the annoying thing of classing dance under the more American title of ?Electronic? music while Napster classes Usher and Beyonce as their most important dance artists which probably also shows the lack of research for the European market.

The HMV site does a bit better here by having a ?Dance? section but doesn't go as far as splitting this category down more into its sub sections. Napster does split the categories down into more detail but still seems confused as to what should go where. It almost seems as more of an attempt to fill an empty category then to insert good content.

To test the content on the HMV site and Napster I took this weeks top 10 (from the BBC's website here) and searched for these tunes on both sites. From the HMV site (OD2) I found 6 out of the top 10 songs of the week while on Napster I found 8 out of 10.

Napster certainly seemed better for HipHop and other more American music while the content provided by OD2 did have a lot more dance but had a certain amount of the content Napster had. In a way deciding which service to use goes hand in hand with the type of music you enjoy. When searching for music I found that the HMV site came with better results for what I was searching for than Napster, though both services have to go a long way to get better library's of music.

Napster had a better way of cataloguing their content then OD2 and searching was significantly faster, both services I didn't think were good at helping you discover new artists. Something simple that showed you what new content had been added in the various sections that week would be more than enough to help you discover new music.

iTunes is the only service to offer a client for an alternative operating system to Windows, Napster installs its own client and the HMV site will only work in Microsoft's Internet Explorer which is restricting for people who use alternative browsers.

Personally I found the HMV site to be better overall for what I wanted, its not as polished and sleek as Napster and isn't a big a brand as iTunes for on-line music but for content it was the best in my opinion. The service is far from perfect and until you can find any chart song, whether it be from the pop chart or dance chart then people will still use the illegal downloading sites.