(Note: all prices in this post refer to Australian dollars)
(Note 2: This review has taken nearly a month from purchase to publication. Some features may have changed in the meantime that I wasn’t aware of. If that is the case please feel free to let me know in the comments)
While US residents have had access to the Amazon mp3 store for some time now, the rest of the world has been starved of access to DRM-free, high quality music downloads. Here in Australia consumers looking for DRM-free downloads have been restricted to those available via iTunes (essentially selections from the EMI back catalogue). On 13 August 2008, all that changed as Bigpond Music launched its mp3 store.
Bigpond Music has made deals with the Big 4 of SonyBMG, EMI, Universal and Warner as well as a selection of independent Australian labels and has made available a selection of music at 256kbps or 320kbps completely DRM-free. This compares favourably to the iTunes music store which provides 256kbps AAC/mp4 downloads DRM-free for EMI releases only.
While Bigpond Music brings with it a load of baggage courtesy of its parent company Telstra (former government owned telco monopoly and the gorilla in the room in the Australian market). On the other hand, 320kpbs mp3 downloads from a service that previously specialised in crippled WMA files of lower quality was too good a service not to at least sample.
What’s on offer?
There is only a small selection of mp3s on offer while this new service is in its infancy. I expect the number of mp3s available to ramp quickly as more content comes online. Individual tracks sell for $1.69 and albums for $16.50, which is very similar to iTunes at $1.69 and $16.99 respectively. Members of Bigpond (the parent company ISP) get a discount to $1.50 and $15. I haven’t come across any variable pricing yet and it doesn’t seem to matter if a title is one disc or two – the price sits at $16.50. The pricing model is both good and bad compared to iTunes. iTunes regular offers much cheaper titles (particularly DRM titles) but pricing also increases dramatically with multi-disc releases.
Using the service
For the purposes of this review I picked something I’ve had my eye on in iTunes but was reluctant to buy due to pricing and DRM issues – the deluxe 2CD version of “August and Everything After” by Counting Crows. Bricks and mortar stores have priced this title in the high $20s and iTunes has it at $29.99, encumbered with DRM. iTunes also offers the original release at the discount price of $11.99.
Using the search box in the top left corner, I searched for “counting crows” which brought up the results page to the left. Almost all of the results were for crippled Windows Media files. The results allow you to filter by format. Not shown here is the result of that filtering which pulled out just one title which just happened to be the one I was looking for.
When you view an album, you have an ‘Add to cart’ button. When you click that button, the status changes to “Adding…” before changing again to “In Cart”.
It provides a very obvious indicator that the status of the album has changed from viewing to one step away from owning.
Once you’ve added something to your shopping cart, the basic cart view at the top of the page changes to reflect your purchases to date. What isn’t clear in the thumbnail but is clearer if you click through to a larger version is that it keeps tabs on the number of items purchased as well as the total cost.
Clicking on the “View Cart” button brings you to a screen that enables you to review what you’ve selected to date. It also allows you to change your decision on selected file format and takes one last opportunity to upsell membership to the Bigpond ISP. Also prominent is a reminder that, similar to iTunes, you need to have a registered account and be logged in in order to use the service. Although I haven’t walked through the process here, signing up to Bigpond Music is relatively straight-forward and painless.
Once the payment transaction has been completed, users are taken to the download page which, at the time of my purchase in mid-August, showed the legacy of Bigpond Music’s DRM Windows Media past as it refers to downloading licences and the like. Rest assured that mp33 files don’t require a licence to be played.
Clicking on the download links spawns a download pop-up window where each file can be saved individually. This is experience is much more awkward than downloading an album via iTunes as iTunes will download each file automatically to a pre-determined location. The Bigpond Music way requires each file to be saved, much like using “Save as…” in Windows. The site maintains it has special integration with Internet Explorer. However, I didn’t discover this until after I had made the purchase using Firefox. I understand that the integration is in the form of an ActiveX control, which makes me nervous. I don’t like accepting ActiveX controls on my computer for security reasons, even if the source is known to be a legitimate one.
Downloading individual tracks through a web interface has its own problems. Of the 30 tracks available for download, two of the download links timed out, leaving me without the files I had paid for. Time outs happen. No big deal. The terms and conditions of the site clearly stated that customers have three downloads of each purchased track to cover download problems (time outs, incomplete downloads etc). So, I tried to download again.
Hmm, not so good really. It turns out that, despite the terms and conditions, you can not try and download a track more than once. Not good. I put an email through to Bigpond Music support stating my case. Unfortunately I was trialling the service on a Sunday morning and would not get an answer until the next business day. To Bigpond’s credit, I did get a timely response the next day which claimed that sometimes files are unable to be downloaded due to anti-virus and software firewall programs. The email suggested that I disable any of these programs in future before downloading from Bigpond Music. In the meantime, Bigpond reset all my download licences for the album to enable to get the two tracks I was unable to get the first time.
I’m not convinced at the logic of firewalls and anti-virus being responsible for only two tracks to fail to download and 28 tracks to work as intended. The error message (a screenshot of which I emailed to support at the time) indicated to me at least that it was a database issue. Irrespective of what the problem was, the end result was the same. Support wove some magic and I was able to get the music I paid for, albeit delayed 24 hours.
Room to improve
I found the web interface a clunky way to browse, purchase and download an entire album. The iTunes Store has a much smoother user interface that lets you buy and download an album with a single click. Bigpond Music would benefit greatly from a desktop application of some sort. I can understand that the service might wish to avoid the support nightmare of developing an app that works in Windows XP/Vista and Mac OSX at a bare minimum. I imagine a development platform like the cross-platform Adobe AIR would be perfect for this type of service. Hopefully Bigpond will give consideration to such a development in the not too distant future.
The range of mp3 music available is still not great either. It was pure luck that Bigpond had an mp3 version of an album that I had been looking at buying for a while. I skim through the catalogue from time to time and while the DRM-free side of things is growing, it doesn’t seem to be growing all that fast. Perhaps this is just a function of my taste in music and I expect that the range will continue to grow over time.
Despite the stigma that is often attached to the Bigpond name (the ISP side of the business has arguably some of the worst value and highest cost broadband internet plans in Australia and the movie and music services have been strongly linked with buggy Microsoft DRM since they launched), the Bigpond Music mp3 store is not too bad. Despite my reservations regarding exclusive use of a web-based interface, it is not too hard to navigate around and if you know exactly what you want, it is quite easy to see if it is in the mp3 catalogue.
The Bigpond Music mp3 store is a welcome addition to the Australian market, providing another resource for major-label music free of DRM. I don’t see it knocking the iTunes Store off its perch anytime soon, but it will hopefully put some pressure on Apple to continue to innovate in this space. This is definitely a service to keep an eye on.