As my good friend Joey pointed out in the comments to this post, songs from the iTunes music store are no longer DRM. This, of course, is cause to rejoice, and with me becoming an iTunes/iPod convert, it should be big news for me. Still.. Amazon MP3 has my heart lodged in its little download queue. CanI really jump ship to iTunes? Or is there room for both in my life?
Just now, I purchased two songs I heard today on my internet radio station of choice, KEXP — Public Image Ltd.’s “Rise” (Amazon MP3) and Shake Some Action!’s “Damaged” (iTunes). As it turns out, “Rise” is $.99 on both services, but “Damaged” is a whole dime cheaper ($.89!) on Amazon MP3! I could even buy the original Flamin’ Groovies song for which the band is named for a measly $.69, if I so desired. Why on earth would I go to iTunes when there are dimes to be saved??
Well, hold on. Out of fairness, I haven’t poked around the iTunes Store too much. Sure, Amazon MP3 looks like the better bet in this case, but I should give the competition its due. So, to be fair, I decided to undertake a somewhat unscientific comparison between the two services. This is by no means a comprehensive examination of the two, and I am certain I brought my own predilections into my assessment, but nonetheless… here you go.
- Ease of Access: iTunes Store has the benefit of being integrated with many people’s music management software of choice (or inevitability), as well as their likely default music player. Amazon MP3, though, has the advantage of being tied to the first destination for many people looking to purchase music, movies, etc., and they are also banking on Google’s success by hitching its wagon to the Android for mobile downloads. With iTunes, however, you are one click away from having a song or album instantly added to your library. For Amazon MP3, you must install an app, and upon downloading a song or album you have to open the .amz file on your desktop. From there, though, the song shows up instantly in your library. It’s an extra step, sure, but it’s not the end of the world.One advantage for iTunes, of course, is brand recognition and market share, so they can win exclusive deals to promote certain artists and hype certain downloads (I remember one of the few times I’ve used the iTunes Store in the past, to download an exclusive Michael Stipe cover of Joseph Arthur’s “In The Sun). But who knows, that sort of reach and brand awareness could just be around the corner for Amazon MP3.
- Price: I don’t have many points of comparison on this count, since I’ve only used the iTunes Store sparingly, but let’s take the latest album by one of my favorite artists, Sweden’s Hello Saferide, as an example. Rather than hold out for a $20 import CD, I decided to buy it digitally on Amazon MP3 for $8.99. On iTunes, it’s $9.99. If I’d thought to check Amazon MP3 for that Shake Some Action! song, as I mentioned above, I could have saved a dime. You’ll see that, across the board, Amazon Mp3 often undercuts iTunes by that 10 percent. Sure, it’s a buck here and a dime there, but if you’re a rabid consumer of online music, that adds up quick, and maybe the slight inconvenience of clicking the Amazon MP3 download link on your desktop is worth the savings, in the end. iTunes, to its credit, does offer some songs for $.69, but it also offers some premium tracks for $1.29 as a result of the variable pricing it introduced to appease the record labels. True, Amazon now has some variable pricing, but in my experience, they still offer the better deals and overall prices.
- Wishlists and Gifts: One major flaw of Amazon MP3, I feel, is the lack of an ability to add digital albums as wishlist items or buy them as gifts. Not that iTunes capability to do the latter is that great. One thing I did use the iTunes Store for last fall was to buy a Death Cab for Cutie album for my friend David. I knew he used iTunes and the iTunes Store, so I thought it would be easy — buy the album as a gift, he’ll get an e-mail, go to the store, download the album and listen away. As it turns out, he had a giant headache getting access to and downloading the album, needing to ask me to re-send the receipt I got for the album purchase. It was baffling. If it is relatively easy for me to buy an album as a gift, shouldn’t it be easy for the recipient — given that they have iTunes and an account with the store — to download it? Apparently not.
- Multimedia: iTunes definitely wins here. The iTunes store is your one-stop-shop for not only music, but TV shows, movies, podcasts, apps and other media. With so many people owning iPods, iPhones and iPod Touch, the integration with iTunes goes a long way in making for easy viewing and installing of media and apps. Amazon, on the other hand, just has a way for you to watch movies streaming on your computer (24 hour rental for $3.99 a pop for movies like “The Wrestler”), and while you can download them to your PC, XBox or TiVo, the process looks prohibitively cumbersome.
- Freebies and Deals: In terms of items where the price is right (read: free), Amazon MP3 wins, offering a ton of free samplers from labels like Sub-Pop, Barsuk, Bar/None and Anti- and free tracks from the likes of Neko Case, Beirut and David Byrne. iTunes only has a handful of songs from no-names as part of a “Single of the Week” type feature, as well as a smattering of bargain bin audiobooks and episodes. You can learn about them on Twitter, but why bother? They’re not worth it. As for deals, read more below about how Amazon MP3 uses Twitter to promote some amazing album sales. One of my favorite Amazon MP3 deals was when they sold Paul Westerberg’s one-track album, “49:00,” for just $.49. Though, actually, the album 43:55 long.
- Tweet, Tweet: Speaking of the devil, Amazon MP3 also wins for having a killer Twitter presence. It’s a human, not a feed, as this delightful tweet about a sale on a Creed album revealed, and they use the account to promote really, really great album sales — I got new albums from Lily Allen and The Bird and the Bee — albums I probably wouldn’t have purchased in the store on disc — for $3.99 each after learning about the sales from @amazonmp3. They also recently introduced the #BandBattle, inviting followers to have input into which albums go on sale. iTunes has an account that posts movie trailers, as well as the aforementioned free songs account, but both have only a fraction of @amazonmp3’s 300K+ followers and don’t seem to share any real compelling, interesting content — certainly not deals. Through Twitter, Amazon MP3 is not only gaining an additional platform for advertising its sales, but more importantly, the service is building a community, spreading brand identity and establishing relationships with its customer base. It’s got to be hard to compete with a brand as ubiquitous as iTunes/iPod/etc., but going grassroots is one good way to go about it.
- Online Presence: The iTunes Store does not have a very human touch — you can tell that there is a lot of computing going on in the background that churns out the top-selling movies, the most-downloaded podcasts, etc., and maybe a marketer deciding which artists to highlight in the “New and Noteworthy” section, but the Amazon MP3 homepage feels more personal. They link to their editors’ blog — They have editors? Cool! — list their best albums of the year so far and post daily deals (with helpful context — for their $2.99 Great Lake Swimmers album deal, they helpfully inform you that the band sounds like Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine). Personally, I like feeling like there’s a man behind the curtains and it’s not all just some complex algorithm at work.
Of course, this is not the first time someone has compared Amazon MP3 to iTunes, though a lot of those side-by-sides were done when the service launched in September 2007. Here is one such comparison completed shortly after Amazon MP3 launched. (It bears mentioning that of the obscure album test administered for that post, where 3 of 9 were not available on Amazon MP3 in September 2007, 2 of those 3 are now there.)
So, yeah, my affection for Amazon MP3 likely shines through in this comparison, but it was a helpful exercise to examine the iTunes Store more closely. And the next time Google, Hype Machine and Elbo.ws fail me when I’m looking for a song — as was the case with my downloads today — I’ll probably be sure to do a little comparison shopping between the two services. Even though I suspect Amazon Mp3 will win the day each time, maybe iTunes will start to surprise me. Then, I suppose, my conversion would be complete.