MP3 the Easy Way

Indie music retail gains momentum online

All hell is breaking loose in online digital music sales. On the main stage: Last month Amazon.com announced its intention to enter the fray at the end of the year, challenging iTunes' hegemony in the market. More recently, after much hand-wringing anticipation, Apple debuted iTunes Plus, a service that sells high-resolution, restriction-free downloads—which launched in collaboration with EMI (home to Pink Floyd, the Beastie Boys, and a few different Snoop incarnations). EMI became the first major to offer Digital Rights Management (DRM)-free digital files.

More important for you than silly-ass love songs from Paul McCartney, this means that at iTunes (and soon at Amazon), you can now download N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton in a high-res, restriction-free format, for $11.99. You can burn it as often as you like; you can print a color copy of the booklet; you can pass an infinite number of high-def recordings of "Fuck Tha Police" to your buddies without having to worry about the Man chasing you down and dropping your ass in the clink. Ah, sweet freedom.

Amazon will sell only DRM-free files, which brings us that much closer to the reality Apple kingpin Steve Jobs conjured in a February 2007 speech: "Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players."

That world, ahem, already exists, both at eMusic.com, where for 10 bucks a month you can download DRM-free MP3s; and in the so-called "digital underground," where online indie shops and labels are thriving amid the seeming chaos.

The future of online digital retail—no longer the domain of a handful of power brokers—is most clear in these little shops. The Web equivalents of the High Fidelity-style record merchants, the best of these businesses sift through the digital dust to find the diamonds. They offer amazing sound samples, dish out worthy opinions, and toss in weekly charts to keep you in step with the rest of your subculture. While Universal's henchmen are holed up in conference rooms with their lawyers, the mom-and-pops are claiming a big chunk of the green that's in play now that the CD economy has collapsed. Take your time, Sony. We can party without you.

BEEP [www.bleep.com ]
Who: The online shop of Warp Records, the London electronic-music label and longtime home to Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Boards of Canada. In addition to nearly every track that Warp has ever released, Bleep sells music from hundreds of labels, including French house stalwart Ed Banger, eclectic Ann Arbor electronic-music label Ghostly International, and Germany click-and-cut portal City Centre Offices.

What: Bleep deals in high-quality (320 kbps) MP3s, and sells them for $1.35 per track or $9.99 for the album. Bleep also offers a growing number of its releases as FLAC files for a higher price of $12.99. (FLAC is an open-source lossless compression format that's becoming the industry standard—although iTunes does not recognize FLAC files.)

Ease of Use: Warp's biggest hit this year is the new Battles CD, Mirrored. I ponied up $9.99 for an MP3 version at Bleep and within five minutes had a sturdy copy of the album. Its squirrelly instrumentals sound excellent, and I can now dub it for my pals with a clear conscience.

Downside: Site was created by Warp's annoyingly innovative design team, Designers Republic, who often choose form over function. That said, Bleep's still user-friendly. Click on an icon of, say, !!!'s new album, Myth Takes, and a list of songs appears. Press play to sample tracks in 30-second increments. You also can jump around to different parts of the songs here.

OTHER MUSIC DIGITAL  [www.othermusic.com ]
Who: In April, New York City record store Other Music, long a tastemaker for its fantastic online mail-order division, debuted Other Music Digital. The shop's portal overflows with fringe jazz, psychedelia, electronica and rock.

What: The store offers high-quality MP3 files (320 kbps) from hundreds of labels across the globe, including the great Chicago label the Numero Group, longtime North Carolina indie Merge and Seattle's respected Light in the Attic. Cost: $1.11 per song.

Interactivity: Other Music has improved its search function, which was clunky and annoying at its online CD/vinyl outlet. But the digital store still has some kinks. Before I bought the new Lavender Diamond release, Imagine Our Love, a page recommended that I use Other Music's download manager. I did, but then it failed to launch after purchase. Ultimately, I had to download each song track by track, which took more time than I wanted.

Downside: Browsing is a little difficult, which is frustrating only because Other Music features well-written recommendations. It could be better organized.

FINA MUSIC  [www.fina-music.com ]
Who: An online shop started last year by the owners of Thrill Jockey Records, home to Tortoise, Trans Am, the Sea and Cake, Howe Gelb and OOIOO, among many others.

What: A solid but small collection of labels, including Norwegian experimental-electronic gem Rune Grammofon, Detroit intelli-lectro label Ersatz Audio, and Chicago indie-rock mainstay Carrot Top. Thrill Jockey offers high-quality variable bit-rate MP3s (a thrifty way to compress files to achieve maximum fidelity from littler files) at $10 per release.

Interactivity: Very efficient, few bells and whistles. There's a funny page that pops up after you order something (I'd suggest Trans Am's Sex Change). It's of a guy in a shipping room; a thought-bubble says, "Hang on while I pack your order!" And then, bingo, it's ready for you to download. The ease of use stands to reason. Thrill Jockey was an early adapter of restriction-free files. The label sells its files on most major online stores, including iTunes, eMusic, and Rhapsody (and deals with Other Music and Bleep as well).

Thrill Jockey head Bettina Richards says that the Internet landscape has exploded in the past six months. "Prior to that I would say it was probably a steady 20-30 percent of sales of a record," she says. "But I've had records in the last six months where it's been close to 50 percent. Just a couple—so they're still slight aberrations—but once a band gets a certain kind of profile, it just skyrockets." Richards confirms another boom in the music business: Vinyl sales are way up.

Downside: Fina doesn't sell individual tracks, and the selection is limited. That's set to change, says Richards, as the shop adds music from 30 more labels in coming months.

KOMPAKT RECORDS MP3 [www.kompakt-mp3.net]
Who: German techno master Kompakt Records' online store. I saw God at this beautiful online outlet.

What: Efficient Teutonic design commands your attention with its simplicity. Kompakt's selection is deep if you're into German minimalism. A music geek could get lost in here: early jacked-out jams on Profan from Mike Ink and Thomas Brinkmann; crazy, dubby tech-house from Poker Flat Records; a huge pile of epic stompers from Ricardo Villalobos; and about a billion other songs. Cost: 1.39 euros per song, or 11.99 euros for an album in decent-quality 224 kbps MP3 format.

Interactivity: When sampling the tracks, you can click your cursor anywhere on the player to hit a different part of the song. The player moves with the chrome-like precision of a modernist track. It's like dropping a needle on a record. You can find the breaks, you can skip the sappy introductions. I spent three hours nodding along to Bpitch Control's 2005 output—and hurt my neck pretty badly in the process.

Downside: It's pricey, because you're paying in euros and the dollar is crap right now. I bought a DJ Koze mix, All People Is My Friends, along with a great dance-floor banger by Simon Baker called "The Fly," and it cost me $18.39. But, hey, spiritual experiences are supposed to be expensive, and unlimited access to Kompakt's collection is priceless.

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