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Buying Music Online


I love music. My PowerBook currently houses nearly 9000 tracks and this is only about half of my collection. While it's true that I have downloaded a few tracks from P2P networks, the vast majority have come from my own collection and several pay-online music sites. These days, my favourite pay-for sites are eMusic and iTunes. Before I continue, I would like to make several things very clear:
  • It's absolutely legal to download music from P2P networks in Canada
  • It's 100% legal in Canada to buy a CD and rip it to an MP3. It's even legal to take that MP3 and copy it onto other systems that you own
  • I spend about $30/month on music. At least half of this is on-line, mostly in the form of a $10/month eMusic subscription plus the occasional iTunes purchase. The rest of the monthly music budget is usually eaten up when buying CDs at local acts or new releases from my favourite artists
  • I do not condone the use of P2P networks for two reasons: First, I think that, while legal, it's unethical to download music and movies without compensating the artists. Second, I routinely, both at work and at home, have to clean up after the mess of malware and viruses that irresponsible P2P users seem to be disproportionately victim to.

eMusic http://www.emusic.com

I have been using eMusic since it opened in 1998. At the time, the service was $15USD a month. This let you download any of the available music. There was no limit. I had broadband access even then, and took advantage of this generous subscription program. I downloaded nearly everything that I found even remotely interesting. Emusic introduced me to Ron Sexsmith, Soulive, Tito Puente, Carl Tjader, Vince Guaraldi, Chick Corea and some very interesting Oscar Peterson selections. In fact, I'm still finding new stuff that I indiscriminately pulled down years ago.

While the $15/month unlimited feature was cool, it was somewhat unsustainable. In 2000, the site was sold to a German company and things changed considerably. Now, I pay $10/month for only 40 tracks. I get variable-bitrate, decent MP3s for $0.40 a pop. This makes it less than half the cost of iTunes for unrestricted, high-quality tunes. There is only one catch: The selection.

Emusic boasts over 1,000,000 tracks. I believe them, but you're not going to find Madonna, The Beatles or many other top-40 artists of the day. However, if you're looking for slightly stranger stuff, you're all set. I have recently, discovered, Broken Social Scene, Curtis Stigers and Martina Sorbera on eMusic. I've also found interesting artists such as Elysian Fields, Sex Mob and more. Their Jazz and Blues selection is also quite extensive. Moreover, eMusic has a real focus on promoting upcoming bands. They also pay the artists for their work, though details on what exactly this means aren't available on the eMusic site.

Finally, eMusic is cross-platform. Their optional download manager is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. While I miss the days of the unlimited download, eMusic is still my favourite music site out there. For more reasons why I like eMusic, see their "About" page.

NOTE: The Linux download manager is rather problematic and is unmaintained. A Java-based open source effort called eMusicJ has created a better download manager than the one provided by eMusic.

Zunior http://www.zunior.com

Like eMusic, Zunior caters mostly to smaller labels. You can buy albums of MP3s for $8.88 or for an extra $2 you can opt for uncompressed FLAC files. Downloads include PDFs of liner notes and art.

Allofmp3.com http://www.allofmp3.com

If you're still not convinced about sticking with iTunes and E-Music. please consider allofmp3.com as an alternative to P2P. This Russian MP3 site offers a staggering selection of very mainstream music. Like eMusic, they offer MP3 files, but you pay by the megabyte, not the track. You can pick the format and pick the bitrate, prices increase as the quality goes up. The legality of the site is... questionable at best. According to them, the site is legal in Russia but only because of loopholes in the country's copyright law. It's arguably safer than P2P and you can't complain about the quality, but none of the money goes to the artist. However, at least the quality is high and you don't have to worry about viruses and spyware.

Wikipedia has an excellent write-up on allofmp3.com and even recommends 3rd-party tools that allow users to access allofmp3.com from non-Windows platforms.

Files are $0.02/mb on allofmp3.com. This means that a typical album will cost somewhere between $1 and $2. Needless to say, this is quite affordable. While I don't like the fact that allofmp3.com doesn't pay the artists, it is a relatively safe way to get high-quality music at very affordable prices. Myself, I tend to stick to eMusic.


Of course, for more mainstream stuff there's always iTunes. These files are DRM'd, but Apple makes it pretty easy to burn a straight audio CD that you can easily rip back as MP3s. Songs are $0.99/each or $9.99 for an album. The selection is outstanding and the quality is pretty good. The AAC files are only 128kbps, but this sounds much better than an 128kb MP3. There's a great selection of both mainstream and indie stuff on the site and more content is being added all the time. There's a reason iTunes is the number one on-line store. It offers the most selection with the easiest interface at a fair price. My biggest gripes are that the musicians only see $0.05/track, while Apple gets about $0.30 and the studios get the rest. However, these are the breaks. I wonder how this compares to e-music. In any event, it's a great service. One sticking point for me is that only a subset of the content of the US iTunes Store is available to us Canadians. Also, it is a pain to buy an album, burn it and rip it back. However, this is still often faster and cheaper than buying it in the store, and that assumes of course that the store actually stocks the latest Medeski, Martin and Wood, which isn't often the case here in Kingston.


  • Blame Canada parts I and II. Discusses the fact that downloading from P2P is and always has been legal in Canada.
  • More coverage of the Canadian legal rulings can be found here, here, here and here.
  • Information on the levy that we Canadians pay on all recordable media can be found here and here. The short version is that, as of 2004, we pay between $2-$25 for each MP3 player based on capacity, $0.77/Audio CD and $0.21/CD-R.
  • GrepLaw is a Harvard-based site that, among many other interesting issues, has covered the legality of Canadian P2P use.