Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Amazon and Radiohead: Shaking up CD vs. MP3

I'm already a compulsive iTunes user, but when it comes to buying digital music, I've been a "single" man thus far, plucking favored tracks here and there rather than buying complete albums. But the grip of the physical CD may be loosening — at least for artists other than the few I'm completely obsessed with — as I've downloaded two MP3 albums in the past week.

It was probably just a matter of time until Amazon truly grabbed my attention with its music downloads, and it officially happened last weekend as I was ostensibly shopping for Christmas gifts but secretly plotting to buy the new Killers CD, Sawdust. As part of a sale on certain download albums, the whole 17-track affair was on offer from Amazon for $7.99, and there was no passing that up, especially with a track list that throws in a remix of "Mr. Brightside." Amazon offers a downloader application to ease the process, and it came with a free track, to boot, by The Apples in Stereo. The downloader is a sleek and efficient app that — no surprise here — downloads the purchased songs, but it also automatically adds them to the library of your iTunes or whatever player you might be using. A couple minutes later I was enjoying The Killer's lovely cover of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town" and the synthy-rock magic of songs like "Sweet Talk." With high-quality DRM-free tracks at prices that often beat iTunes (and, for me, have the added advantage of no sales tax), Amazon is poised to effectively challenge iTunes, which recently eliminated the premium pricing of the DRM-free iTunes Plus tracks. Consumers stand to benefit as the two compete and DRM is (I hope) shown the door.

Then there's Radiohead's pick-your-own-price gimmick with its download of a full album, In Rainbows. Although Radiohead doesn't appeal to me a great deal, I decided to give it a shot before the closing a few days ago of the download site, the only place where the album was available. My chosen price? One pound, or about $2. You can view that in two ways — that it's too cheap and an insult to the artist, or the point of view that I take — it's two bucks Radiohead never would have gotten from me any other way. It's clever marketing that is exposing some casual and non-fans of Radiohead to the band's music and potentially inspiring them to buy other Radiohead albums.

In Rainbows is a pleasant listen, rather moody and far from the kind of in-your-face rock that generally turns my stomach. I disliked the track "Bodysnatchers" off the bat but liked "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," "Reckoner" and "House of Cards" on the first listens.

And aside from the convenience and quality of these digital albums, there's another bonus: two less discs to add to my mountain of CDs.

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