alan little’s weblog

all of mp3

13th September 2004 permanent link

Thanks to Ian Bicking, I have been looking at, a Russian music download service. Pricing is very cheap: a (US) cent a megabyte, so what you actually pay depends on what level of compression you're willing to live with (more on this later). There are even supposed to be some things available in uncompressed form at two cents a megabyte, although I haven’t found any yet. Selection seems a lot better for my purposes than at Apple’s store – I actually find a lot of the things I’m looking for, including nearly all the things Apple’s UK store didn’t have when it opened.

User interface: the website is ok. Search works reasonably; browsing is better than emusic because it's just alphabetical by performer, not arbitrarily chopped up into somebody’s silly definition of “genres”. The registration and buying process is painless. The online help is good, and in good English. Only downloading is a pain in the arse for Mac users: they have a batch downloader but, unlike emusic’s, it’s Windows-only. Mac users (probably few and far between in Russia) have to click on their files one by one to download them.

Unlike on emusic, there’s no facility to mark interesting items to maybe download later. The prices are so cheap, there’s hardly any reason not to download anything that looks even vaguely interesting (this may not be true for Russian customers) – except that for me as a Mac user, downloading masses of stuff would be a pain.

The non-classical selection is the best I’ve yet seen on any online music store in terms of what I’ve looked for actually being there. The classical selection is pathetic, although there are a few gems to be found: Mozart violin sonatas by Oleg Kagan and Sviatoslav Richter, Brahms clarinet quintet by Karl Leister, Prokofiev piano concerto no.5 and sonata no.8 by Sviatoslav Richter. All from western labels. I was hoping for mysterious but brilliant unreleased-in-the-west soviet archive recordings, but no.

Here’s where it gets fun. Most commercial music download sites offer only one fixed encoding and (low) bitrate. On AllofMP3 you can choose what format and bitrate you want depending on how much bandwidth and space you have, and how much you want to pay. They have more encodings available than I’ve ever heard of. Their “masters” are mostly 384 kbps mp3s, so anything else you order is re-encoded from these. In theory this is not good as involves two lots of lossy compression. I’ve tried 320 kbps AAC and “extreme” (about 290 kbps variable bit rate) mp3, and both sound fine to me. They are also supposed to have some things available uncompressed and downloadable in lossless format but I haven’t found any yet. There’s no DRM so once you’ve got your files you can do what you want with them.

I think this is great. You can get much better sound quality than is available from western download sites. Marketing types would probably think it’s way too complicated, scary and unpredictable for the average bod, and they’re probably right. See Andrew Odlyzko’s famous paper on telecommunications pricing and how people prefer fixed and predictable pricing to variable pricing, even if the variable offering is cheaper and/or technically superior. This may be less true in Russia, where computer use and internet access are less pervasive and the average user is probably more technically savvy.

What’s not to like? They have music I actually want. I can get it in decent sound quality with no DRM, instead of paying near-CD prices for DRM’d 128 kbps. It’s cheap. And it’s, er, completely legal in Russia. Which is fine – I can just, er, stock up the next time I go to visit the in-laws.

If something like this were available in the west – good sound quality, no use restrictions, music I actually want – I would use it if the prices were anything like reasonable. “Reasonable” meaning: well below what Apple charge, but it wouldn’t have to be as low as a cent a megabyte.

Other write-ups at museekster (ridiculously tiny illegible font, they should sack their designer) and gizmodo.

UPDATE AND APOLOGY: museekster is only in a ridiculously tiny illegible font in Safari, it is just fine in all other major browsers. I apologise unreservedly to Hans Handgraaf, museekster’s designer, who sent me a very polite and friendly email and is clearly a nicer guy than I was being when I wrote that.

related entries: Music

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