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Online music stores: a new way to "rip" you off

"I don't want to single out Apple. Wal-Mart, MusicMatch, Sony and RealNetworks operate online music stores with rules and restrictions of their own. ... Major players in the digital music field are all trying to lock you in so that they can extort money from you for the rest of your life." This article covers the disadvantages of online music stores and the advantages of ordinary CDs. It provides tips for getting your CD collection onto your digital music player. It also offers advice about choosing a digital music player, whether you have $99 or $499 to spend.

Apple locks you in

The iTunes Music Store is about to sell its 100 millionth song! Each song sells for 99 cents, so Apple Computer, Inc. isn't making much money from its online music venture [1].

What do you get for your 99 cents? You get a stripped-down version of a song. It's stripped down in four ways. First, you don't get complete liner notes or artwork. Second, you don't get a full-quality copy of the song [2]. Third, you don't get the right to sell the song when you're tired of it [3]. Fourth, you don't get the freedom to play the song on whatever equipment you like [4].

If Apple isn't making money on music, it's got to be making money on something else. The iPod, Apple's tiny digital music player, is today's top selling player [5]. The cheapest iPod costs $249 and holds up to 1,000 songs. The most expensive one costs $499 and holds up to 10,000 songs. Despite the iPod's high price and runaway sales, Apple actually expects the margin (potential profit) to drop over the course of this year [6].

For such an pricey gadget, the iPod has a short life. You have to replace the battery every few years. It's proprietary, and you can't change it without breaking the iPod open [7]. Apple will gladly do this for you, for $106 [8].

What if you want to buy a different digital music player instead of replacing the battery on an iPod that's several years old? Too bad. No other portable player will accept the songs you bought from the iTunes music store [9]. You can't convert the songs to other formats directly [10]. You can copy them to CDs [11], but they weren't CD-quality to begin with.

The iTunes / iPod combination locks people in. In the long term, that's how Apple will make money from digital music.

Other companies also guilty

I don't want to single out Apple. Wal-Mart, MusicMatch, Sony and RealNetworks operate online music stores with rules and restrictions of their own. If you want to play Wal-Mart or MusicMatch songs on your portable player, you have to buy a Microsoft-compatible player [12, 13]. If you want to play Sony songs on your portable player, you have to buy a Sony player [14]. If you want to copy RealNetworks songs to a CD, you have to pay an extra fee for each song [15]. Major players in the digital music field are all trying to lock you in so that they can extort money from you for the rest of your life.

It's better to buy CDs

A CD is worth more, in practical and legal terms, than songs from a popular online music store. What are the advantages of buying a CD? First, you get liner notes and artwork. Second, you get high-quality sound. Third, you get the right of first sale, which means you can lend, sell, or give away the CD [16]. Fourth, you get the technical freedom, if not an absolute legal right,* to play the music on whatever equipment you like.

How do CDs work with digital music players?

Copying songs from a CD to a digital music player is a little less convenient than buying the songs from an online store. When you buy songs from an online music store, they're already in the right format. When you start with a CD, you have to convert the songs to a format that your player can accept. The software the comes with your digital music player will handle the conversion. The process is called "ripping". If your computer has a modern CD drive, the process takes just a few minutes per disc. Often, the software will look up the song names from an Internet database called CDDB. If this doesn't work, the song files will be named "Track 1", "Track 2", and so on. You'll have to rename those files yourself. Once everything is ready, the software will copy the files to your music player.

What if I want to buy a new player?

If you use an online music store, you have to buy a player that the store supports (see above). If you have CDs, you can buy any player you like. Just re-rip your CDs using the software that comes with the new player.

If you have many CDs, it will take a long time to re-rip them. You might want to create a media library instead. All you need is a big hard drive and a program that will rip CDs to a standard, uncompressed, full-quality format. If you have a PC, you want a format called WAV. If you have a Macintosh, you want the Macintosh equivalent, which is called AIFF. Suitable programs are available for free on the Internet. CDex, a Windows-compatible program, is one example. For details, go to . If you have a Macintosh, the iTunes program does the trick. For details, go to . (You do not need to buy an iPod or use the iTunes Music Store to take advantage of the iTunes software.)

Once you have ripped all of your CDs to the hard drive, use the software that comes with your digital music player to "import" the files. They will be copied and converted to a format that your player accepts. Be sure to specify, via the "Preferences" or "Options" command, that you do not want to delete or replace the original song files. This way, you can return to your media library whenever you buy a new digital music player.

Aren't hard drives expensive, and hard to install?

Hard drives are very cheap these days. I found a 160 gigabyte (GB) drive for $87, from a reputable vendor on the Internet. (Try , for example.) One CD takes up about 0.7 GB, so a drive of this size will hold 230 CDs, at a cost of 40 cents per CD. That's a small price to pay for the convenience of never having to re-rip those 230 CDs!

Most desktop PCs have room for three to four hard drives, and most desktop Macintosh computers, for two. Search the Web for illustrated installation guides. I found the following guide helpful and brief:

If you have a laptop computer, or if you're nervous about opening up your desktop computer, get an external USB 2.0 or FireWire (IEEE 1394) enclosure or "box". To see what one of these looks like, go to: . They cost about $75. Buy the 5.25-inch size. Make sure that your computer supports USB 2.0 or FireWire. Never buy a box that works only with USB 1.1. Owners of newer Macintosh computers may have a choice of FireWire 400 and FireWire 800. The slower and cheaper version, known as FireWire 400 or just FireWire, is sufficient.

What if I have a lot of CDs?

Today's cheapest hard drives have a capacity of 120 to 160 GB. (Take the price and divide it by the capacity to get the price per gigabyte.) Again, a 160 GB hard drive will hold 230 CDs. If you have more than 230 CDs, it's cheaper to buy two 160 GB drives than to buy, say, one 300 GB drive.

If your computer can't accommodate two new hard drives, get a removable rack/tray assembly and an extra tray. The rack goes into a 5.25-inch bay in the computer, or into the external box; the hard drives go into the trays; and one tray at a time slides into the rack. (You can recognize a 5.25-inch bay by its large size; it's the kind of bay that can hold a CD or DVD drive. Most desktop Macs do not have a spare 5.25-inch bay, so an external box is absolutely necessary.) A rack/tray assembly costs about $15 and each extra tray costs about $10. The cheapest is always the best. For a close-up picture, go here.

It should be obvious, but be sure to tell the software that comes with your digital music player that you want the converted music files to be stored on your main hard drive. There should be plenty of room, because the converted music files will be much smaller than the ones in your media library. When converted, your 230 CDs might occupy 10 GB. The full-size media library is accessed only when you're ripping a (new) CD or when you're preparing to use a new digital music player.

Now, if the iPod is bad, what kind of digital music player should I buy?

The iPod isn't bad, as long as you eschew the iTunes Music Store. If you want to carry your entire music collection with you, and if you don't mind the price, the weight, or the size, a 15, 20, or 40 GB iPod is perfect. (At 4 GB, the new iPod Mini will not accommodate an entire music collection.) The 15, 20, and 40 GB iPods cost $299, $399, and $499, respectively. iPods work with Macintosh computers and PCs. For more information, go to:

Sony's forthcoming NW-HD1 is similar to the 20 GB iPod. Both cost the same, but the Sony is smaller and has a longer-lasting battery. All iPods provide up to 8 hours of battery life, whereas the Sony provides up to 30 hours. For more information, go to: . Unfortunately, the Sony NW-HD1 is not Macintosh-compatible.

If you need a small player for the gym or the running track, consider the forthcoming Sony NW-E75 or -E95. Whereas the iPod stores your music on a hard drive, these players contain "flash memory" chips with no moving parts. The E75 can hold a few hours' worth of music, and the E95, double that. (As with all digital music players, the amount of music you can store depends on the sound quality settings that you choose.) The up-front cost of either model is quite high (over $200). They are, however, the smallest players to accommodate standard batteries. This will save you a fortune in the long run. You can buy disposable AAA batteries for less than 50 cents apiece at Walgreen's, or rechargeable AAA batteries for about $1.25 apiece at an electronics store like Fry's. The Sony NW-E75 and -E95 happen to have the longest battery life yet seen in digital music players: up to 70 hours. For details, go to: . If you know Japanese, you can get more information at: . The Sony NW-E75 and -95 are -- you guessed it -- not Macintosh-compatible.

If you want a really small player, consider the coin-sized Joybee 102 from Ben-Q. It's due this summer. For details, go to: . Not much information is available yet.

For a cheap alternative to the iPod, consider the Dell DJ. It's bigger, heavier, and uglier, but much more affordable. Like the Apple iPod, the Dell DJ uses a non-standard rechargeable battery. Dell's battery provides more than twice as much playing time as Apple's. Better yet, Dell's replacement battery costs half as much as Apple's, and you can easily replace it yourself. (The Dell DJ has a battery cover with screws. You don't have to pry open the case. If only Apple's engineers had thought of that!) The 15 GB DJ costs $199, the 20 GB DJ costs $223 (on sale) or $279 (regular price), and Dell will give you a $100 credit if you send in a used iPod (no joke). Dell products are not Macintosh-compatible. For information about the Dell DJ, go to: . Hint: Do not get all excited and buy a Dell PC to go with your Dell DJ. Get the PC from an independent computer store (e.g. ) instead.

If you want an inexpensive digital music player, consider an MP3 CD player. It looks like a regular CD player, but it plays regular CDs (with up to 74 minutes of full-quality music) as well as MP3 CDs (with many hours of reduced-quality music). You can use your computer's CD-writer to create MP3 CDs containing your favorite songs. If you don't have a CD-writer, they are often available for $20 or less from OfficeMax or Staples (watch for periodic rebate specials). Blank CDs are usually free (again, watch for rebate specials), so you can produce as many MP3 CDs as you want. They make great coasters when you get tired of the music. When choosing the actual MP3 CD player, the usual criteria of price, size, weight, battery life, and standard battery type apply. Consider Sony's D-NE710. It has the longest battery life yet seen in a CD player. It also happens to use standard AA batteries. (Disposable AA battery, 50 cents. Rechargeable AA battery, $1. Non-standard battery, $40 to $105. Got it?) You should be able to find the Sony D-NE710 online for less than $100. For information, go to: . Whatever the specifications say, all MP3 CD players are compatible with both PCs and Macintosh computers. This is because any computer that's capable of accommodating a CD-writer is capable of producing an MP3 CD.

Avoid Gimmicks!

When buying a digital music player, try to avoid the following gimmicks:

Non-standard batteries: If it's not an AA or AAA battery, you can't buy it at the corner store, and it will probably be very expensive to replace. All rechargeable batteries, including nickel metal hydride, lithium ion, and lithium polymer batteries, will wear out within a few years. [17] It's a question of chemistry. AA and AAA rechargeables are great, because they are cheap and ubiquitous.

Extended warranty plans: The up-front price of the extended warranty is often higher than the residual value of the device on the day you break it.

"CD quality" sound: The only way to get CD quality sound is to listen to the original CD (or the WAV or AIFF files in your media library).

"Superior" sound quality: When you're on a bus, at the gym, or in a plane, you won't be able to tell the difference between AAC, MP3, ATRAC3, or any other compressed audio format. Conversely, when you're in your living room, you'll notice that neither AAC, nor MP3, nor ATRAC3, nor any other compressed audio format sounds as good as the original CD (or the WAV or AIFF files in your media library).

Good luck with digital music. Please post your comments and suggestions, and share your experiences.

P.S.: While I was in the middle of writing this article, the New York Times published an article that corroborates my concerns about online music stores. To read it, go to:


* It is obviously illegal to copy a CD and distribute it over the Internet. It is obviously illegal to obtain commercial music for free over the Internet. I do not condone either one. But it may even be illegal to copy one of your own CDs to your own MP3 player, for personal use! (MP3 is a popular and compact format for digital music.) I can't provide any legal advice in this article, but I can quote the Recording Industry Association of America. According to them,

"This is one of those urban myths like alligators in the toilet. ... If you choose to take your own CDs and make copies for yourself on your computer or portable music player, that's great. It's your music and we want you to enjoy it at home, at work, in the car and on the jogging trail. ..." [18]

This may sound reassuring, but elsewhere on their Web site, they say,

"Multipurpose devices, such as a general computer or a CD-ROM drive, are not covered by the [Audio Home Recording Act of 1992]. ... [N]either manufacturers of the devices, nor the consumers who use them, receive immunity from suit for copyright infringement." [19]

They add,

"[The] No Electronic Theft Law (NET Act) sets forth that sound recording infringements (including by digital means) can be criminally prosecuted even where no monetary profit or commercial gain is derived from the infringing activity." [20]



[1] Taylor, Chris, "Coolest Inventions 2003", Time Magazine,

[2] " Import as many songs as you like", Discover iTunes, Apple Computer, Inc.,

[3] Gilbert, Alorie, "iTunes auction treads murky legal ground", CNet, September 23, 2003,

[4] "iTunes Music Store / TERMS OF SERVICE", Apple Computer, Inc.,

[5] "Apple Financial Results / Conference Call / Quarter 2 - 2004", Apple Computer, Inc.,

[6] "Apple Financial Results / Conference Call / Quarter 2 - 2004"

[7] "Is the iPod's battery user-replaceable?", iPod Battery FAQ,

[8] "iPod Out-of-warranty Battery Replacement Program", Apple Computer, Inc.,

[9] "MP3 player compatibility with iTunes for Windows", Apple Computer, Inc.,

[10] "iTunes 4: Music purchased from Music Store cannot be burned to MP3 disc", Apple Computer, Inc.,

[11] "iTunes 4: Music purchased from Music Store cannot be burned to MP3 disc"

[12] "Terms of Service / Music Downloads", USA, LLC.,

[13] "Terms of Use", MusicMatch Corporation,


[15] "Can I burn CDs", FAQs and Help,, Inc.,

[16] "The First Sale Doctrine", Copyright Tutorial, North Carolina State University Libraries' Scholarly Communication Center,

[17] "Is lithium-ion the ideal battery?", Battery University,

[18] " What is your stand on MP3", Ask the RIAA, Recording Industry Association of America,

[19] "Digital Music", Copyright Laws, Recording Industry Association of America,

[20] "Digital Music"


New Comments are disabled, please visit



Two words: Who cares?

Who cares? Lots of consumers.

I don't know about you, but I see lots of people listening to music on iPods and other devices. Many of them did the right thing and paid for that music. But did they get what they paid for? This is a consumer advocacy article, intended to help people make good choices in the marketplace. And this is an open publishing forum, is it not?

Re: Online music stores: a new way to "rip" you off

Just a note, when you purhcase songs through Real Network's Rhapsody Service, it gets burned onto a CD - A CD you get nearly instantaneously and for less than a traditional CD. In addition, for 10 bucks a month I can stream as much music as I want, I think it's a good deal, and it's obviously a service consumers enjoy as evidenced by the fact they utilize it.

Also, in many cases the limitations imposed by services reflect the myriad of licensing deals with various recording labels.

I will agree that players like the Sony and Apple ones do stink due to their restrictive software... Products from Rio and Creative don't have nearly the same limitations, and are more affordable.

Re:music downloads

just find a napster type sight and down load for free. they are still out there just hidden. not too bad just look.


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