Digital Rights Management: These three little words send chills down every music lover's spine--because one of the biggest complaints about music purchased from online behemoths like iTunes and Rhapsody is that those stores (largely) encumber tracks with digital rights management (DRM) software that restricts how and where you play the music you purchase.
So what's a music lover to do if they want to acquire tunes digitally? Though iTunes has begun selling DRM-free music and is rumored to be dropping DRM completely, most of its selections still remain protected. Other music stores are starting to go DRM-free, a sign that the music industry is finally listening to customers.
But you don't have to wait for the big stores to join the DRM-free revolution. PC World editors have compiled a list of our ten favorite online music stores that offer huge selections of DRM-free music at reasonable prices. Even better, these songs are sold in formats compatible with iPods, Zunes, and most portable audio devices. Slacking on holiday gift shopping? Many of these stores offer gift certificates as well.
Of these, my favorite site is Amie Street, because of its innovative pricing system and its ease of use. Now the list, in no particular order.
eMusic: Looking to do your music and audio books shopping in one place? This subscription-based music store offers a broad selection of indie music and audio books in MP3 format. In fact, it is the world's largest retailer of independent music and the world's second-largest digital music retailer overall offering over 3.5 million tracks and more than 2000 audio book titles. You can also access editorials by eMusic's team of music experts, recommendations, and member playlists. eMusic's subscription program allows you to download a certain number of MP3s per month for a flat rate. For example, 30 downloads per month costs $11.99 per month, and 50 songs is $14.99 per month. Hate the service? Cancel anytime and the music is still yours to keep.
Amazon: The online retail giant was the first music store to sell DRM-free MP3s from the Big Four--EMI, Universal, Warner Music, and Sony BMG. Browsing through Amazon's selection can be annoying--the interface is at times unwieldy and obtuse--but Amazon has some fantastic deals. For example, every Friday, Amazon's editors feature five albums for $5. And these aren't bargain-barrel items: Editors pick musicians as diverse as The Minutemen, Motorhead, and the Saturday Night Fever sound track. Individual songs vary from $0.79 to $0.99, while whole albums range from $1.99-$8.99.
Jamendo: This community-based site differs from others on our list because the music is absolutely free. That's right: No subscriptions, no per-track cost, no album download fee. And no limitations. The catch? You probably haven't heard of most of artists on the site. Top 40 this isn't, but that's why Jamendo is so fun. You can find everything from Chilean folk pop to Italian metal to the next big indie hip-hop star. Listen online to any song and download it either directly from the site (in MP3 format) or through BitTorrent servers (where you can find MP3 and OGG formats). This site is completely legal because its artists use Creative Commons licenses, the same licenses used by Flickr, Deviantart, and other content-sharing sites.
Amie Street: In this independent online music store, community members collectively determine the price of a song. Amie Street uses an algorithm to calculate prices based on demand: All songs start free and rise in price up to $0.98 depending on how frequently they are downloaded. You can earn credits by RECing (the site's term for recommending) songs you think will be a hit. Whenever a song you've RECed goes up in price, you earn free credit. Amie Street offers MP3s from a dizzying number of genres and artists, from lesser-known figures such as Dennis Driscoll to big-name bands like Pavement and of Montreal.
Napster: Oh Napster, I have such fond memories of staying up all night with you and illegally downloading hundreds of emo-band albums my freshman year of college. But then that grouchy drummer from Metallica and the RIIA had to go and ruin all the fun. Well, it's nice to see that Napster is back--and now in its third incarnation, with the launch of a DRM-free MP3 store, it's serving up some major competition to Amazon and Apple. Napster now has over 6 million DRM-free WMA-encoded files available for purchase, a giant step over Amazon's 5 million and Apple's measly 2 million. You can sign up for a 7-day trial. When it expires, you can choose one of Napster's subscription programs, ranging from $12.95 to $14.95 per month. Artists range from major-label superstars, such as Britney Spears and Akon, to indie artists like Mary Timony and The Gaslight Anthem.
Audio Lunchbox: This easy-to-explore site offers a vast selection of indie-label albums from a variety of genres. Audio Lunchbox has everything from virtually unknown acts to bigger name artists such as Tom Waits and The Game, all in iPod-compatible MP3 format. You can either sign up for one of its month-to-month subscription plans or buy tracks a la carte (about $1 per track). At this writing, Audio Lunchbox currently offers 50 free downloads when you sign up for a subscription plan. Other bonuses include weekly editors' picks and top ten lists.
LiveDownloads: Sometimes a live version of a song is way better than the studio version. LiveDownloads recognizes this and gives users the opportunity to listen to recordings from current and older live shows from artists such as the Smashing Pumpkins, The Black Crowes, and Broken Social Scene. Though geared more toward the "jam band" genre fan base, LiveDownloads also offers some indie, metal, and jazz selections. They also carry a few studio albums. Single tracks are generally $1 each; albums and whole-show prices are determined by format and length. One gem I found was a selection of jazz and Americana selections from the Savannah Music Festival. You can download full albums in MP3 or FLAC format; the latter is higher audio quality and therefore slightly more expensive.
Bleep: Specializing in electronic and indie music, Bleep offers top-flight LAME-codec MP3s. At $1.35 apiece, individual songs are priced a little higher than other sites we've listed, but whole albums are a reasonable $10. You can preview entire songs, rather than 30-second clips as on most sites. Bleep also has some cool exclusive content. One artist, for instance, included a comic book with his album that you can view on your device as you listen.
CD Baby: This Portland, OR-based online record store sells albums by independent musicians in both CD and MP3 format. You can browse CD Baby's collection by genre or mood (or both), or use its Discover Music search engine to find something new. I was in the mood to listen to something that matched the weather outside, so I typed in "dark" and "stormy." CD Baby pulled up a couple of different albums with short descriptions and listed similar artists. MP3 and CD prices vary depending on artist and album length. It is important to note that you cannot buy individual MP3s on CD Baby; you can only buy entire albums.
LimeWire Store: The developers of the file-sharing client LimeWire launched a music store in May 2008. They're now up to almost 2 million tracks from a wide array of indie labels and continue to grow steadily. Users pay $1 per MP3 (in a high-quality 256k format) or can choose from monthly subscription plans that reduce per-song cost dramatically (Platinum brings the cost down to $0.27 per track!). Eventually, LimeWire plans to integrate the store within its file-sharing software, so purchase links can appear alongside its search results.