Apple today unveiled the iTunes Music Store, a commercial Internet music service featuring more than 200,000 tracks from the five largest music labels and available via a new Music Store playlist entry in the popular (and still free) iTunes 4 music playback and disc burning software. The iTunes Music Store requires Mac OS X 10.1.5 or higher, iTunes 4 (an 8.3 MB download), and QuickTime 6.2 (a separate 18.4 MB download).
Unlike existing commercial music services such as Rhapsody and PressPlay, the iTunes Music Store offers both individual tracks and albums for sale and does not require a subscription, although customers may currently purchase only using a valid credit card billable to a United States address using Apple's 1-Click accounts. The iTunes Music Store also allows customers to burn purchased tracks to CD or DVD discs (an unlimited of times for individual songs; up to ten times for an unchanged playlist), and to transfer tracks to players and up to three different Macs. Also unlike every other commercial music service, the iTunes Music Store is Mac-first and currently Mac-only.
The iTunes Music Store offers individual tracks for sale from artists on the world's five largest record labels - Universal, Sony, BMG, EMI, and Warner. The store's catalog currently features over 200,000 selections, and Apple says the list will be expanding quickly (they'll even send you email every Tuesday with promotions and new additions). Importantly, the entire iTunes Music Store catalog is browsable within iTunes 4 by genre, artist, and album, and a 30-second audio preview is available for every track on the service. Many tracks also feature cover art and some even offer videos. New selections, staff favorites, and featured artists will also be called out separately. Once signed up, you can purchase individual tracks or entire albums with a single click. Individual tracks start at 99 cents; albums are typically priced between $10 and $15. Availability of specific tracks and artists may vary a bit: some artists don't permit the sale of individual tracks, so customers may be able to purchase only entire albums, and some long-form tracks (such as extended live performances, spoken word recordings, environmental recordings, some classical music) may have prices higher than 99 cents. For users with low-speed connections, a shopping cart feature enables the batch purchase of tracks so selections can be downloaded all at once while you do something else.
Tracks available via iTunes Music Store are not MP3 files: instead, they're encoded using AAC (Advanced Audio Codec), a technology from Dolby Labs which is also incorporated into the MPEG-4 standard. At bit rates of 128 Kbps and above, AAC offers greater audio quality than MP3 encoding, although AAC doesn't necessarily do as well at lower bit rates (such as those suitable for modems). Using AAC also enables Apple to tap into the digital rights management (DRM) technologies rolled into QuickTime 6.2, preventing the tracks from being swapped as easily as MP3 files. Users can transfer AAC files purchased on iTunes Music Service to another computer, but iTunes 4 and other AAC playback software will require the original purchaser's ID and password to play them.
If the iTunes Music Store succeeds, expect Apple to ship a version that works for Windows users - much as they've done with the iPod player - and the company says they're working to make the iTunes Music Store available to international customers.
The real question is whether the iTunes Music Store's 1-Click shopping, music selection, and 99 cent price per track are enough to convince the users of song-swapping services to "get legal." The tracks for sale via iTunes Music Store are legitimate, legal copies of the music, but they're still part of the much-vilified commercial music industry, which many song-swappers don't want to support in any way, even at 99 cents per track. Music from independent artists and labels probably won't be available via the service unless a distribution agreement is in place with one of the so-called "big five" labels, and very little of the 99 cent purchase price is likely to make its way back to the folks who actually wrote, recorded, and produced the audio in any case. Looking forward, it would be interesting to see Apple explore an affiliate program with the iTunes Music Store, enabling independent labels and even individual artists offer tracks for sale. This might give Apple the best of both worlds: popular large-scale commercial releases from the major labels, and independent, quirky material which isn't beholden to the larger music industry.
Needless to say, the iTunes Music Store is being overwhelmed with traffic today, so don't be surprised to see errors while Apple works out the kinks and as the connection spikes settle down. That said, in our testing today, we were able to play previews and purchase songs, and the process appears simple and elegant, as one would expect from Apple.
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