Rory Cellan-Jones

Digital music - who can beat iTunes?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 16 Sep 08, 15:12 GMT

Every day seems to bring a new announcement from the world of digital music. Yesterday it was the ailing Napster subscription service being bought by Best Buy (sorry, too much alliteration).

7digital logoToday it's the UK's 7digital trumpeting deals with the record labels which it says make it Europe's biggest purveyor of DRM-free music. And next month sees the arrival of "Comes With Music", Nokia's new service promising free music downloads with a handset contract. What they are all attempting to do is loosen the extraordinary stranglehold that Apple's iTunes has over the market.

It's going to be tough. The subscription model favoured by the likes of Napster and eMusic was one strategy, which now seems to be fading, just as the talk of an iTunes subscription service gets louder. Napster gathered around 700,000 subscribers but still ended up making a big loss. I've recently tried out another service eMusic, and am wondering why - it is hard to navigate, and appears to have a limited library for a £10 a month subscription.

7Digital appears to offer a more compelling proposition - a straightforward download store with a wide range of music from the four big labels, and at prices that look very competitive. But having tried it once a few months ago, I haven't returned. Why - the i word. No not iTunes, but inertia. What Apple has achieved is to make millions of computer users extremely comfortable with the whole concept of downloading and paying for music. That is a big - and lazy - crowd and having got into the habit of using iTunes, many will take a lot of persuading to move elsewhere.

But it's the mobile market that could prove the chink in Apple's armour. There are far more people using Nokia mobile phones than iPods, and in the coming months they're going to be asked a simple question. Do you want to get "free" music with your mobile - or would you prefer to pay for every track from iTunes? Now of course there are plenty of other questions to be answered about the nature of "free" (just how much more am I going to pay for this handset than one without music?) but you can see the appeal of Nokia's proposition.

And it won't be alone. Best Buy didn't snaffle up Napster for its subscription service, but for its mobile platform, which could end up on phones sold in stores across the US and the UK. So the battle for the digital music market is about to get a whole lot hotter.


  • Comment number 1.

    Rory, Apple hardly make ANY money selling music and films on the iTunes Music Store. Apple make their money from iPod and iPhone sales, and you can (officially) only use iTunes to Sync your iPod or iPhone.

    Frankly, this is about the 500th company that has been going after iTunes Music Store, and I still wonder why, when it is a well known fact that Apple hardly make a penny from selling music and films on iTunes.

    Now iPhone/iPod touch Apps are a different story. 70/30 split and they have sold millions of Apps since the Apps store went live a few months ago.

    All the money from music sales on iTunes goes to the music cartels.

  • Comment number 2.

    I've just been trying to buy something from Passionato as I generally don't buy classical music from iTunes (too low a bitrate). On the day it launched, the website crashed so I tried it again today.

    I don't know if it's just me but if I try and buy the Karajan recording of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" there is actually no 'buy' or 'download' button. I've tested it on Firefox and IE7 but the results are the same, and with other albums too.

    I emailed them this morning but have not received a reply.

    Further inspection of Passionato's website reveals spelling mistakes and dead/non-existent links. The search function is terrible as well.

    I won't be bothering with them if they can't even get the basics right or reply to questions.

    I'll stick to either buying single classical tracks off iTunes and then ordering the CD off Amazon if I like it. I don't see that anyone else has, or is likely to match the ease of use of iTunes.

  • Comment number 3.

    I wrote a blog post that discusses the impending implosion of iTunes. I agree with you that people are trying to dismantle iTunes one peice at a time.

    check out the blog post here

  • Comment number 4.

    Hey Rory, what about MySpace Music which is prepping for launch in the coming weeks?

    see this for more:

  • Comment number 5.

    Even though I've had an iPod for over a year I haven't bought a thing from iTunes - when I can get music DRM-free on a CD why would I want to pay more to get a DRM-restricted version of it from iTunes?!

    I tried out Amazon's MP3 store for a few albums (before they blocked it for non-US residents) and it was a much better deal - full DRM-free albums (complete with high quality cover art) for less money than the CD (most seemed to be priced at about £5).

  • Comment number 6.

    I disagree with the way e-music is presented in the article. The library is huge. It may not have mass-market appeal, but it is a music-lover's paradise. For a reasonable subscription fee, you DRM-free mp3s with tags which are rather well written. If you are curious about music, and you want to discover previously unreleased piano music by Scriabin, or a Miles Davis cover released in Newfoundland, or music for guitar by Argentinian composers born after Piazzolla, this is the place to be.

  • Comment number 7.

    Apple make no money from iTunes, it's just there to peddle their iPods.

    If it was MS doing it they would have been p in court for anti-competition violations well before now. But not the 'good' guys Apple eh?

  • Comment number 8.

    I didn't think you could play downloaded music from iTunes on anything other than an iPod?

    I'm looking for a site with a good wide selection of DRM-free files, that play on any player, without subscription, for a reasonable per-song price. Don't think I have found it yet, but when I do, they'll get my business. Even if it happens to be Apple.

    Until then, I'll stick with Nokia Music Store. Not DRM-free, but they play on my computer, my Zen and my Nokia phone, costs 80p per track, and there is a good selection.

  • Comment number 9.

    Come on, the fact is most people illegally download their music. Those without the know-how who were given an iPod as a present might pay for downloads from iTunes, mainly the more mature users.

    Ask any 20-something and they'll say "why on earth would you pay to download music?" The sad truth is, it's quicker, easier and cheaper to get whatever you want illegally and the chances of being caught are akin to winning the lottery. At worst, your ISP will send you a letter - terrifying!

    The fact is limewire, piratebay, isohunt, etc are where the vast majority of people go to get music. Until something's done about that, most music sites are doomed.

  • Comment number 10.

    I got some discounted vouchers for iTunes and that is the only reason I have ever bought music from there (I use the App Store for my iPhone). I won't pay full price for music from there.

    An example of why I don't use it is the new Metallica album. I bought the CD from a shop for the same price, and so have a CD quality version I can copy to any device I want, in the format I want and at the quality I want.

    iTunes and other services (especially if they want to take any of Apple's market share) must sell their wares at a lower price than you can buy CD's for, and at a better bit-rate than iTunes can currently provide, and without the ridiculous controls over how many PC's you can play it on, how many CD's you can burn it to and how many devices you can listen to it on.

    If there is a service that will provide all of that, and with a huge catalogue to choose from, I'll be willing to use it.

  • Comment number 11.

    For all those complaining about DRM, please take into account that it is the MUSIC CARTELS that insist on DRM being applied to the music. Apple have said on record (no pun intended) that they would drop all DRM in a heartbeat if the labels agreed.

    Also, you can get iTunes 'Plus' tracks at no extra cost with no DRM on them. But ONLY if the Music Cartels decide to release the track.

  • Comment number 12.

    Dear hedley_lamarr,

    RE: Passionato service

    Customer Service is one of our main priorities at Passionato and we have a dedicated team to manage all emails, phone calls and letters. We have a (maximum) 24-hour response rate for all incoming requests.

    Last week's launch was focussed on the UK only (we are exploring other territories now that we are successfully up and running in the UK - we've had 200,000 downloads in the first two days!) so we currently do not sell music to anyone visiting from outside of the UK. For this reason we have removed the ability to download to all non-UK visitors, which reflects the current level of rights we have with the key major and classical labels. This may explain why you, or indeed any non-UK visitors, would be unable to see the full funcationality of the Passionato site, including the various links you mention or the 'buy' buttons.

    In the meantime, anyone can register for free at and enjoy 10 free tracks. For everyone who registers outside of the UK, we will email them once we launch our store in their country. We will also be updating the site for visitors from outside of the UK, clarifying that downloads are currently only available to purchase for UK residents.

    I appreciate your feedback on the search functionality and our developers are currently working to provide users with more logical results, as well as extending the searches over a wider number of fields. In parallel, we will also be introducing an advanced search facility in the near future - this will provide much more power to deliver more targeted results, including the ability to search under specific fields such as title, artist, label catalogue number and even barcode.


    Rob Gotlieb
    Director of Marketing

  • Comment number 13.

    I've been an eMusic subscriber for four years. I get 40 DRM-free tracks per month for about 15p each. (The price for new subscribers has gone up a bit since but they kindly kept my price unchanged.)

    I think eMusic is the only downloads seller that got its product and pricing right from the start.

    What it doesn't have is the catalogue of the major labels. Lots of people - such as Rory, apparently - don't find what they want there.

    But it does have a vast catalogue of independent releases, including jazz and classical. For anyone who has found that much of the music they buy happens to be on independent labels anyway, eMusic is the place.

  • Comment number 14.

    Ask any 20-something and they'll say "why on earth would you pay to download music?" The sad truth is, it's quicker, easier and cheaper to get whatever you want illegally and the chances of being caught are akin to winning the lottery. At worst, your ISP will send you a letter - terrifying!

    The fact is limewire, piratebay, isohunt, etc are where the vast majority of people go to get music. Until something's done about that, most music sites are doomed.


    Funny how download sales account for an ever growing poportio of all music sales in the UK then isn't it?

    Don't get me wrong, I don't use any of the legal services. I download illegally, the if I like it I buy a hard copy to put on my shelf at home safe in the knowledge that it is there and DRM free for me to do with what I please.

    Mass catelogue download sites have een a failiure, the real money to be made has been in the small choice 'buy via text message' services and subscriptions. These have made a packet!

  • Comment number 15.

    Rob from Passionato -

    Appreciate your reply via this blog but:

    1) I sent an email on Tuesday morning - it's now Thursday morning and I haven't heard back from you yet. That's 48 hours, not 24.

    2) I am UK based. I have tried buying whilst at both work and home so there's no possibility that your system can think I'm outside of the UK (unless of course, it doesn't work correctly). Both IP addresses point to the UK when I do an IP lookup.


  • Comment number 16.

    I use 7digital for one reason, which means close to everything for me: Quality.

    iTunes is in a low quality (probably Apple Only) format, where 7digital offers a lot of albums and tracks as 320 kbps MP3 with no DRM.

    Being a music lover I need my music in more than 128 or 192 kbps and here 7digital is my best friend at the moment.

    // Lars

  • Comment number 17.

    @ larskjensen,

    "iTunes is in a low quality (probably Apple Only) format"

    No, I think you will find that iTunes sells AAC files, an open format. The only 'closed' part of this is the DRM that the music cartels insist is there.

    iTunes Plus files are DRM free, 256kbps and are also AAC, an open format.

  • Comment number 18.


    Incorrect. The issue here is that Apple cannot agree a pricing mechanism with three out of the four main labels.

    This DRM free music that is sold through iTunes Plus is more expensive than standard purchases through iTunes so Apple have had to compromise here.

    In saying that, I think iTunes will reign supreme for a long time to come, it's just that its market share is less secure than it previously was.

  • Comment number 19.


    "Incorrect. The issue here is that Apple cannot agree a pricing mechanism with three out of the four main labels. "

    What exactly am I incorrect about?

  • Comment number 20.

    @ Mark_M$WFC,

    You are actually wrong about iTunes Plus Pricing my little chum, and it is the LABELS (or Cartels) that set the pricing for ALL music, not Apple.

    iTunes Plus prices were reduced in October 2007.


  • Comment number 21.


    Fair enough my error on pricing. It was initially more expensive and Apple cut the price when other providers started offering DRM free music at the $99 price point.

    As for pricing, I know very well that the labels agree pricing as, indeed, does any supplier of goods where there is strong demand (which is why you're paying about 30% more for petrol just now).

    Your supposition is that they're deliberately excluding Apple as part of a cartel which is wrong because EMI have already agreed a deal with Apple. The problem here is that Apple cannot or will not offer terms which are acceptable to the other three - which may be centred around variable pricing.

  • Comment number 22.

    One thing though: You do have to pay to upgrade your existing iTunes catalogue to iTunes Plus though.

  • Comment number 23.

    @ Mark_M$WFC,

    "It was initially more expensive and Apple cut the price..."

    "As for pricing, I know very well that the labels agree pricing as, indeed, does any supplier of goods..."

    So which is it? Do Apple set the price, or the labels?

    I'll give you a clue - it's not Apple that sets the price.

    There is no supposition in my comments, it is a fact that Apple wants to be able to set a reasonable price, yet the labels want tiered pricing etc. that will once again confuse the consumer. One price. Simple. A major reason the iTMS is so successful.

    And yes you do have to pay to upgrade existing songs purchased from iTMS to Plus songs, much the same way as you pay Adobe to upgrade from CS2 to CS3. Your point is?

  • Comment number 24.

    @ Mark_MWFC

    The other 3 major labels are not allowing Apple to sell DRM free music as they are very keen to encourage alternative digital download providers - hence selling the same tracks as iTunes, but DRM free. Their reasoning is that if they allowed Apple DRM free music, iTunes would dominate the market more completely than they do now.

  • Comment number 25.

    Dear Hedley_ Lemmar

    Thank you for your feedback, I am really sorry to hear of the experience that you have received from our Passionato Customer Service Team. This is not the standard of service that we promote within Passionato, and view incidents like yours very seriously.

    I would like to resolve your query as a matter of priority, in order for us to do this can you please contact our Customer Service Team on 0844 800 7140 between 9am - 5pm, Monday to Friday.

    We really don't want this to discourage you from using the Passionato site and look forward to hearing from you.

    Thank you,

  • Comment number 26.

    I also have one more thing to say;

    It is NOT illegal to be a monopoly. It IS illegal to abuse it.

  • Comment number 27.

    I'd never heard of 7digital before this blog post. Created an account (claimed I was in the UK since there doesn't appear to be a "Poland" option yet), used my existing Paypal account to pay for a few tracks. Took all of maybe 15 minutes from reading to listening and a good part of that 15 minutes was realizing it wasn't playing nice with Firefox. Once I attempted to download the tracks with IE7 all was well.

    320Kbps MP3's with artwork and good tags for two tracks at £1.67. Not too bad in my opinion and a lot easier than attempting to use iTunes from Poland. iTunes demanded that I create an account with a credit card. No Paypal option, no option to use my debit card. So, no account on iTunes yet.

  • Comment number 28.

    7Digital. Is a great company.


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