Wake Up, World! Amazon’s MP3 Store Deserves Better. Doesn’t It?

amazonmp3Over at All Things Digital, Peter Kafka is saying that Amazon.com’s DRM-free MP3 download store is a “miserable failure” as an iTunes Store rival at the end of its first year of operation. Judged in terms of market share, dollars, and cents, it’s hard to argue that it’s anything else: Kafka says that Amazon appears to have around seven or eight percent of the music download business, compared to Apple’s seventy-plus. If it’s possible to put a serious dent in Apple’s supremacy, Amazon hasn’t figured out how to do it…and neither have other DRM-free music merchants such as eMusic, Rhapsody, Wal-Mart, and Lala. iTunes is to digital music what Windows was for years to operating systems: A player so utterly dominant that it’s hard to figure out a scenario in which its share shrinks, let alone make it happen.

Which is a shame–and, ultimately, a downer for consumers. iTunes still provides an outstanding experience, assuming you own an iPod and want to use iTunes. But it’s still rife with copy-protected music: Something like fifty percent of all music on iTunes is now in iTunes Plus DRM-free form, but if you’re talking about the best-selling stuff, the percentage is far lower: Of iTunes’ top ten songs and top ten albums as I write this, only Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” is free of copy protection. Amazon’s MP3 store has everything in those two iTunes top tens without DRM, usually for a lower price. (Footnote: You can buy Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” a la carte at iTunes; Amazon makes you buy the entire album.)

Well, wait a minute, you might be saying: Maybe Apple’s trademark integration of software, hardware, and service makes its experience so slick that Amazon is weak in comparison, despite its lack of copy protection and lower price. Maybe what we have here, in other words, is a musical equivalent of the computer wars, in which Apple manages to sell plenty of computers at a high price because they’re so much nicer than cheapo Windows competitors. (The comparison doesn’t work exactly, since Apple is an underdog in the computer market, not the overwhelming leader…but you get the idea.)

Apple doesn’t deserve to dominate music downloads based on the elegance of its experience. Yes, the iTunes Store is extremely well done. And Apple has a huge advantage in being the only music purveyor who’s right inside iTunes: Everybody else, Amazon included, feels a little afar from the iPod experience. It’s as if Apple was the anchor tenant in your favorite shopping center, and Amazon and others were off at some distant strip mall.

Except…the Amazon music shopping and buying experience isn’t bad either, especially if you’re an Amazon addict anyhow. And it provides a piece of software for both Windows and Macs which puts your purchases into your iTunes library, so they sync onto your iPod just as they would if you’d bought ’em from Apple. And on the Web, all sellers are only a few clicks away. (Forget I used that distant-strip-mall metaphor, please.)

Really, Amazon’s MP3 store should be thriving: It offers a shopping experience which isn’t radically less pleasant than Apple’s, it’ll save you money, and it never shackles you with DRM. And I’d like to see Amazon and other online music stores chip away at Apple simply because consumers will get more music options at lower prices if there are multiple viable companies competing for their business. (I think it’s a given that Apple will go DRM-free at some point, and that it’s more likely to happen if it has strong competitors–even if the problem has less to do with Apple’s desires and more to do with restrictions imposed on it by music owners.)

So why is Apple still such an 800-pound gorilla when it comes to music, and why does Amazon remain a 98-pound weakling? I can think of multiple, possibly overlapping explanations:

–Consumers are uninformed. They’re oblivious to it and therefore Amazon’s lack of it isn’t a meaningful plus.

–Consumers do think about DRM, but don’t care about it. If you only use Apple products and don’t intend to switch, Apple’s FairPlay works just fine.

–Consumers are lazy. They’re not willing to venture outside of iTunes at all to get their music, even if it’s better and cheaper.

–Consumers are discriminating. They think that the iTunes Store offers the best music-buying experience, and are willing to pay a bit more and put up with FairPlay’s limitations to get it.

–Consumers are slow to change. They’re happy with iTunes and used to it; even if Amazon offers a better deal overall, it’s going to be a while before it gains critical mass.

Me, I’d never buy a FairPlay-restricted album from Apple when I could buy an unprotected one from Amazon or somebody else. Then again, I still buy much of my music on CD, since it gets me DRM-free music and a handy backup that preserves my music even if all my hard drives were to die simultaneously.

Your thoughts? What could Amazon do to make its MP3 store irresistible to even the most stubborn music fan?


13 comments

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  1. JC December 15, 2008 at 6:10 pm #

    I like Amazon’s mp3 store. I guess I’m one of the few who care for DRM-free tracks and the freedom to not use the iPod Touch. I also own a Creative Zen Plus because it’s easier to carry if you’re working out, so I want mp3s not Apple’s music format (ACC?).

    Amazon does not advertise it’s digital downloads in traditional venues (magazines, billboards, bus/train stations), so no wonder not many people have heard of it. Apple spends tons of ad dollars in these venues (not scientific, just from personal observation).

    As an aside, the library of songs available counts. I’ve tried eMusic and canceled because they did not have any bands I like. This was a while ago, before music studios started to release DRM-free tracks. eMusic had tons of bands that I would classify under “nostalgia” and classical/new age music. All fine if that was what I was looking for.

  2. Michael December 15, 2008 at 6:46 pm #

    There is actually an AppleScript that you can download that will find whatever you’re looking at (in the iTunes store window) in also the Amazon mp3 store.

    Go here:
    http://www.advantageousmp3.com/mac/

    and download the script and enjoy iTunes store familiarity and cleanliness with Amazon quality and DRM-freedom.

    (requires Mac OS 10.5)

  3. Lunar December 15, 2008 at 7:23 pm #

    I don’t know what they can do but I think it’s going to be very hard to do anything about it. I liken it to the fact that Internet Explorer still has like 65% (guess) of the market share even though it’s competitors blow it out of the water. It requires a bit of tech savvy to explore outside of the norm. I’m a tech guy and I have tried to explain to my wife her options when it comes to digital music, but she just won’t listen. Itunes is what she knows, she’s fine paying what’s she’s paying, she hasn’t run into a situation where her music won’t play anymore, so she’s just not going to change.

    The truth is that there is only a certain % of the digital market that is overly tech savvy, and of that market I would guess that a fair % don’t pay for their music at all.

  4. Lawrence December 15, 2008 at 7:50 pm #

    People who read and post in blogs and forums like this have a skewed view of the world. They think they are representative of the general population. They are not. Most people don’t care about DRM. They don’t care about encoding bit rates. What they care about is that it’s easy to purchase and listen to music with an iPod and the iTMS.

    The same is true of user-to-user troubleshooting forums. A group of users find out they have the same problem and nothing in the world will convince them that the particular problem isn’t pandemic. Everybody else has the same problem too. They have a skewed view of reality.

  5. Dave Barnes December 15, 2008 at 8:26 pm #

    Better “stores”

    1. MP3Sparks.com
    2. ThePirateBay.org

  6. Matt Sharpe December 15, 2008 at 11:34 pm #

    I am extremely glad that Amazon’s MP3 store has opened in the UK.

    I have already bought two albums from it. The experience was very smooth and I didn’t have to mess about burning to CD then ripping again to rid the songs of their DRM.

  7. John December 16, 2008 at 1:25 am #

    Nobody I have ever met has ever mentioned DRM to me. I only here about it online like this. If I didn’t know that the music I purchase had DRM I wouldn’t know it was there.

    Music just isn’t that large of a purchase. If I was buying a digital camera, an HD camcorder or a car I would do a lot of comparison shopping. When buying songs for a buck a piece it isn’t worth my time to shop around. As long as iTunes works really well I’ll keep using it.

  8. ediedi December 16, 2008 at 2:05 am #

    Until music (and dmovie) downloads are available worldwide the issue of DRM or non-DRM is really non-existent, since we are pretty much encouraged to use illegal download methods.
    Why isn’t any online music store available in Romania (EU member), not even the DRM-free ones?
    iTunes can sell me apps with no problem for my itouch, so payment is not the issue.

    A good method to compete for Amazon would be to open up music downloads to ALL markets, I think it would be huge.

  9. Eric December 16, 2008 at 2:41 am #

    I think the one thing that keeps me from buying songs from Amazon is the iTunes gift card. A couple of times a year someone will give me or my wife a gift card for iTunes and we maintain a balance in our account. To use Amazon I would have to drop the charge for a song onto a credit card. Buying songs from Apple is perceived as free by us as we never really feel the hit. If Amazon did a campaign where they pushed their own gift cards they might raise their profile in the music market.

  10. Frank December 16, 2008 at 3:09 am #

    Apart from the drm free, and the “it’s not apple” and any and all other reasons one could come up with…

    Amazon mp3 does not work in europe… iTMS does…

  11. Mindchaotica December 16, 2008 at 7:54 am #

    One could make the argument that you could buy from Amazon, use iTunes, and have an iPod and not ever have bought anything from the apple store.

  12. Jay December 16, 2008 at 3:54 pm #

    Amazon is great! Their deal of the day is epic and they even have new stuff really cheap. I just got Folie a Deux by Fall Out Boy and Day and Age by the Killers for 3.99 and All American Rejects’ Newest for 2.99. All of that on the day it was released! iTunes doesn’t even come close in terms of price if you get that sort of deal. Also, the lack of DRM is great too.

  13. EddyKilowatt January 15, 2009 at 2:52 pm #

    Hmmmm, hadn’t realized that Amazon’s MP3 store was faring poorly… it’s my first-stop shop for digital music. Hope they persevere and eventually give Apple some competition.

    For me it’s not about copy protection (I only have one computer and one player) or even the Apple platform (since I use iTunes and my iPhone)… it’s about format and open standards, and five years down the road being able to play my music on whatever platform I like best at that time.

    My teenage son sticks to the Apple Store though, even after I showed him Amazon and the Downloader and explained about open standards. I haven’t pushed him on the reasons why, but suspect it is some combo of comfort level, simplicity, and perhaps peer (did someone say ‘herd’?) influence.

    Eddy