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Let’s put this to bed.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to find a decent replacement for iTunes. 

The reasons why I want to abandon the world’s most popular music download service are many and varied.

iTunes is a deeply flawed experience. It's impersonal and slow, with lack of support for different file formats. It has a stubbornly rigid pricing model and no browser access whatsoever.

In fact I rarely use the platform to download. Instead I use a collection of different digital download sites to purchase MP3s online. 

Yet I still use iTunes almost exclusively to organise and access my songs on both desktop and smartphone.

Surely there’s an easier way. Well I’m going to try and find one. For the good of you, me and the music loving public of the world.

Massive caveat alert! 

I am using an iPhone. Not out of stubbornness or because I have some kind of confirmation bias, it’s just because it’s what I have and use on a daily basis. I also use a Mac here in the office. 

I understand that as frustrating as my experiences are in using some of the following platforms on iOS, it’s equally if not more frustrating using iTunes on Android or Windows devices.

So here’s my stall: I’ll be looking at the following platforms and sites from the point of view of a regular music downloader, who wants to purchase, download, organise and stream or play their music through one channel on an iPhone, Mac and a PC at home. 

Is this a pipedream? Probably.

7digital

Positives:

  • It has a simple layout, nothing too showy or ‘in your face’ which immediately makes for a refreshing experience. It also has excellent navigation and search.
  • I like the fact that the artist copy is specifically written by the 7digital editorial team.
  • MP3 and M4A formats are available (although you can argue amongst yourselves which one is better).
  • 7digital can also be accessed through a browser window rather than having to fire up a separate programme on your desktop which can take a while to load.
  • You can download any of your tracks to your desktop as many times as you like, which is great if you ever accidentally lose your music, and of course they can be played via whichever media platform you like (iTunes, Windows Media Player etc).
  • Your downloaded music can be streamed within the browser window.
  • It has great weekly deals on brand new releases.

Negatives:

  • It took me a while to find how the heck you stream the music. It’s a tiny green ‘graphic equaliser’ button in the bottom left of the album cover. 
  • Although the play remains unaffected wherever you navigate to on 7digital, if you go offsite it will disappear. It’s easily done, especially when we’re used to separate programmes providing our musical enjoyment while we browse from one site to the next.
  • 7digital offers a mobile site for purchase and an app that can be linked to your desktop account, so any music in your locker, purchased via desktop or mobile site, can be downloaded to the app. However if you want to purchase, download and play music from 7digital on your mobile, you have to do it via two different platforms. This is a pointless, arduous and frustrating experience that I’m unlikely to repeat.

7digital itself has told me the following:

It’s a shame, as this is clearly frustrating for 7digital, and a testament to Apple’s inflexibility.

For the full story, check out finding an alternative to iTunes: 7digital.

Amazon MP3

Positives:

  • In terms of search and navigation, if you know your way around Amazon, then you’ll know your way around here. 
  • Amazon’s 1-click payment method. 
  • Amazon’s AutoRip service offers a free immediate MP3 download with any purchase of a CD or LP. In many cases you would be buying a physical copy of an album for only £3.51 more than what you were going to pay for the digital copy. This also saves on the effort of having to upload the CD to my hardrive in order to convert it to MP3.
  • You can download tracks from CDs you bought on Amazon years before you even had a MP3 player.
  • If you wish to download your music to desktop, you will have to download the Amazon MP3 app first. This acts as a desktop ‘cloud player’ with which you can stream all of your previous Amazon music purchases or download them to your hard drive as many times as you like.  
  • It’s a lot quicker to load and stream music on then iTunes. You can also sync it with any other music you’ve downloaded to your desktop and create playlists.
  • If you don’t wish to use the desktop app, the Amazon Cloud Player can be accessed within your browser by clicking on the Cloud Player link at the top of any page in the MP3 store.

Negatives:

  • Much like 7digital, if you want to purchase, download and play music from Amazon on your mobile, you have to do it via two different platforms. A mobile site and an app. You cannot access the online store to make purchases via the Cloud Player app. You can only do this via the mobile site.
  • You cannot purchase tracks from the desktop cloud player. You have to use the online shop, and download them to the cloud player separately.

For the full story, check out finding an alternative to iTunes: Amazon MP3.

Google Play 

Positives: 

  • It’s massively cheap. I bought an 80’s Madonna album for less than £2. It’s worth ignoring the remainder of the problems just for that.
  • It works as a music streaming site in much the same model as Spotify.
  • Product listings are presented well, with large clear images, prices and if you click on the artist picture you are presented with an impressively comprehensive biography.

Negatives:

  • You have to download a separate music manager in order to download your albums more than twice.
  • It took me a while to find where you actually download your files from once an album’s been purchased. The navigation is muddied and frustrating in this area.

iOS problems

Google Play doesn’t operate a separate mobile site. You have to download the app. That’s fine in of itself, as I’ve had nothing but trouble with the Amazon MP3 and 7digital mobile sites due to the fact that you can only purchase from the mobile site and download and play through a separate app.

Unfortunately if you’re an iOS user like myself, the Google Play app doesn’t allow you to purchase music either. If I want to purchase music from Google Play on mobile, I have to navigate the desktop version of the site via Safari. Then whilst in the app, I have yet to figure out how you actually download your purchases from the Google Play store. 

It looks like generally speaking my poor experience of Google Play is purely down to my reliance on Apple products. According to many commenters, Daniel Bond from Adestra in particular, Google Play is much more preferable to iTunes. With Google Play All Access you get space for 25,000 of your own songs to be uploaded to a music library. This can be accessed from any device by logging into an account via phone, tablet or desktop browser.

If you have 'All Access' you can listen to any track in the whole Google library and add it to your playlists. This will of course include any songs you’ve purchased from Google Play.

This iOS user will just have to go elsewhere for the device agnosticism he requires.

HMVdigital

Positives:

  • It’s a great looking site, easy to navigate and search around. 
  • Payment can be done quickly and easily with PayPal.
  • You can choose between MP3 and M4A, and these can be downloaded directly to your desktop in a zip file.

Negatives

  • There is no way to stream the tracks online.
  • It seems to be just as expensive as iTunes.

Mobile

In terms of iOS, after a lot of wrangling with Apple, HMV finally does have its app back in the store. However it does seem to be a curtailed experience compared to the Android or Windows version.

The innovative image search and Shazam style sound search remain, but the ability to purchase tracks is non-existent. 

HMVdigital notably doesn’t have a mobile dedicated or responsive site. Which is a shame because HMV has recently launched a an impressively responsive store website. Read all about it here: HMV’s responsive journey back to digital.

Once again I am a victim of Apple’s stranglehold over its own operating system and its rigid protection over its own digital music monopoly.

Fairsharemusic

During my hunt, my attention was pointed towards fairsharemusic.com. This is a digital music download site where for every purchase you make, half of the profit will be given to charity of your own choice. 

  • It doesn’t look like the most sophisticated website, however search and navigation is top-notch.
  • It also offers the much more competitive pricing of 7digital and Amazon MP3, with the added convenience of being able to pay through PayPal.
  • MP3s are downloaded direct to your desktop without the need of a separate file manager.
  • On the negative side, there is no mobile site or app in order to continue the service away from the desktop and purchased songs can’t be streamed via the browser. 

It’s not perfect from a standalone platform point of view, however just by virtue of the fact that half of the money I spend here goes towards a charity of my own choice, I will certainly use this for one-off MP3 downloads in the future.

I'll have to look elsewhere for my streaming needs and there's only one place left to turn.

Spotify

I wrote extensively about the positives and negatives with Spotify in seven reasons why I love Spotify and 17 why I don’t.

Here's a brief summation of its positives:

  • I probably use Spotify more than any other platform. As a part-time music journalist, I couldn’t function properly without its unlimited access to 20m songs.
  • New album releases for any given Monday seem to appear not long after midnight on the Sunday before.
  • As a premium member I can also use Spotify on as many devices as I like (desktop, laptop, phone, work computer) with up to 3,333 songs able to be synced for offline listening on up to three devices at a time.
  • Just in case Thom Yorke is reading, I will also add that far as I’m concerned, using Spotify has led to me spending more money on music through other channels (mainly independent record stores), purely because of the access I now have to music that I wouldn’t normally listen to.

And the negatives?

There's loads of them. Far more than the 17 I listed in the above linked article. However, none of the UX problems with Spotify are as bad as the fundamental flaws inherent in the siloed, device-specific operating systems mentioned in the other platforms.

Perhaps Spotify is the answer to all of my prayers. Despite all of its faults, at least I can listen to any music I like, anywhere I have Spotify downloaded, via any operating system or device. I can also use its web player easily in my browser.

The only trouble with this is that I don’t really own any of that music. It’s all just intangible data. Downloading an MP3 isn’t much better in terms of replicating a physical product, but at least I can make someone a mix CD. 

In conclusion...

Perhaps I’m too old fashioned. Perhaps I should just stop being so whingey about iTunes. Perhaps I should just buy an Android or Windows phone and be done with it.

It’s just so frustrating that all of these above platforms are so rigidly trapped within the prison of their own operating systems or are fundamentally wary of launching a cross device platform that solves all of the problems.

The victor in this war will be the format that backs down and offers a cross-device platform that works equally well for all operating systems or a third-party offering a brilliant solution that is device agnostic. 

Hey Spotify, how about sorting out your UX issues and offering MP3 downloads? That would really help me out.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 14 March, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

686 more posts from this author

Comments (3)

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Michael Powell

To follow up on your final thought on Spotify, they did used to offer a music purchasing and download service (driven by 7digital) but no longer offer this part of the service.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/5082273/Spotify-to-start-selling-music-downloads.html

http://techcrunch.com/2013/01/04/down-and-out-spotify-stops-its-music-download-service-in-europe-but-how-many-were-using-it-anyway/

about 2 years ago

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Mr Omneo

What about Napster? When I got some Sonos kit I had to decide between Spotify Premium or Napster Premium.

I opted for Napster as the interface was far superior to Spotifys woeful efforts, have to say I really like and have all but given up on Spotify now.

about 2 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Gerry White

I am a massive deezer fan, the engine, the interface everything in my opinion is superb, plus value for money if it's still get the special offer on... I have it from EE for free, some tweeks and improvements would be awesome...

about 2 years ago

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