Is DRM dead? As more and more music sites sell unrestricted tracks, PC Advisor investigates the best places to download your favourite tunes.

Digital music downloads caught on without even having to try. As soon as internet users realised they could rip their music collections and add them to their MP3 players, they quickly began using the web to share tracks and acquire more. It's taken the music industry years to catch up, to impose any effective form of regulation and to realise that such measures just won't wash with consumers.

The industry's answer was to shut down the host sites, wrap music in a protective cocoon that prevented it being ripped and start selling MP3s - for almost as much as the CD versions.

Prices have come down, of course, and there remains a huge market in digital music downloads. But the digital rights management (DRM) technology used to protect MP3s has proved highly unpopular with consumers, restricting their ability to transfer purchased tracks between devices.

As more and more websites have begun offering libraries of DRM-free music over the past two years, the industry has shown signs of backing off from its draconian antipiracy methods. In January, Apple finally announced that it had agreements with the four big music publishers to offer their catalogues DRM-free, reasserting its dominance of the market.

But this announcement was long overdue. Apple's iTunes Store now faces fierce competition from the likes of Amazon MP3, which launched its UK DRM-free download store in November 2008. Other notable rivals in the DRM-free market include eMusic and 7Digital, which offers four million tracks. Amazon MP3 offers a similar catalogue, as well as some competitive pricing. During its UK launch, for example, a number of Top 10 chart albums were offered for just £3.

Visit PC Advisor's Digital World for more news on home entertainment technology

Over the following pages, we've reviewed 11 music download sites to see how they stack up in terms of track and album pricing, catalogue size and variety, encoding quality and additional services. iTunes is well known for its podcasts and integration with the iPhone and iPods, but some of its rival sites are great for discovering new artists, enjoying exclusive video content and more.

According to a study by Will Page, chief economist of the MCPS-PRS Alliance, more than 10 million of the 13 million digital audio tracks available online have never been purchased. In fact, 80 percent of online music revenue comes from just 52,000 tracks. And of the 1.23 million albums available online, only 173,000 have been purchased, leaving 85 percent languishing in download sites' databases without a single sale.

While most of us tend to stick with what we know and download songs and albums only from established artists, it's great to know that there's so much choice available and so much left to discover. Choosing the right music download site is therefore critical to your listening pleasure.


Music downloads index:

  1. DRM-free digital downloads
  2. Amazon MP3
  3. Amie Street
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Audio Lunchbox
  6. Bleep
  7. CD Baby
  8. eMusic
  9. Jamendo
  10. LiveDownloads
  11. Napster
  12. 7Digital
  13. Limewire Store