Amazon MP3 is currently the greatest threat to the hegemony of Apple and its iTunes store which owns up to 70 percent of the worldwide legal online music market, making it by far the biggest music retailer.
But while Amazon MP3 and Apple are the two 750kg gorillas in the marketplace, there are smaller but feisty players on the floor which will give the big retailers a run for their money.
Our short guide will give you a list of 10 sites when you can legally download songs either free or for a fee in the UK.
This newcomer on the market has some very strong backing, having been able to secure the support of all four major music labels and is currently selling all their catalogues DRM-free in 320kbps MP3 format (although this is for UK only). It also has an indiestore where you can download free music from upcoming artists as well which has clocked more than 3.1 million listens since its inception. There's also a great free downloads section and you will be able to purchase albums from as little as £5 and from more than four million songs. Popular tracks like Beyonce's "If I were a boy" cost 89p though.
Unlike 7Digital, HMV.com has a huge presence on the high street. The sound tracks are in great 320kbps MP3 format and are DRM free - meaning that you can listen to them on practically all devices around.. The download service, which exists since September 2005, sells single MP3 for as little as 69p while albums such as Take that's "The circus" cost £6.99 (although The Fratelli's Costello Music is £5.49). With more than four million tunes available, the only thing missing is an indie shop and a few free tracks. Note that this website is not compatible with Firefox or Chrome.
Emusic is the dark horse of the lot. It is the only one which offers Audiobooks as well as music. You Can get songs as low as 20p and if you cancel at any time, you get to keep the music you have downloaded. There are no Digital Rights Management structure and all the files are in high quality 320kbps format. Emusic offers 4.5 million tracks and has an introductory "50 free downloads promotion" currently running. But don't expect to find popular artists on their websites. We could neither find Kings of Leon or Leona Lewis.
Play.com is certainly the one which leaves us the most disappointed initially. It has only three million tracks compared to its rivals' larger offerings but you will be able to download them either in 192kbps or 320kbps versions. For some reason, Play.com apparently zipped the music files to save space. Pricewise, play.com promises to beat rivals like Tesco.com or iTunes on Top 100 songs. And it succeeds - Glasvegas eponymous title album costs £10.25 at Play.com and 13.99 at 7Digital.com. Again no freebies here.
Download.com is a popular software download website which has recently started to give our free mp3 songs from unknown, unsigned acts. The site has more than 111,000 songs available at the time of writing. The catch though is that you will not be able to download any of them but only stream them (or build your own playlist). And it is a real pleasure to build your own playlist using Download.com's media player and jump from Kings of Leon's Sex on Fire to Walt Wilkins and Mystiqueros. A great music resource if you're on a budget or willing to stream songs.
Datz is the first of two eat as much as you want paid download music service. Launched in October, the service which has a 1.4 million song catalog - substantially smaller than the rest of the competition - has one huge advantage. It cost only £100, you can download as many songs you like over a period of 12 months and the music files are encoded in 320kbps format. Although Datz says that there's no DRM system, you still have to use an unobtrusive secure USB dongle to access the music. But unlike others, you will be able to keep the music for life. Bear in mind though that Sony or Universal acts are not listed and the system is no currently compatible with Mac.
Nokia's Comes with Music is not "stricto-senso" a download service as it ties you up with a particular mobile phone. There are currently two on the market, the old 5310 and the newer N95. You can download as much music as you want for a limited period and once this is over, you can still keep the music. The 5310 costs only £137.18 on a pay as you go basis (although it is unclear whether you will need to actually make calls with the phone) and you will need a PC to download and transfer the songs. The amount of songs you can transfer will depend only on the size of your hard disk drive and your internet connection. But with more than 3 million tracks and thousands more added every week, this is a great deal if you only care about the music and don't mind the handset.
The ex-bad boy of the download scene now sells songs legally. Napster offers the largest song catalogue with more than six million tracks and its Napster to Go membership is by far the most interesting. For £180 per year, you will be able to get 80 ad-free radio channels, buy music to keep forever, burn and transfer as well aas get the latest releases before they hit the shops. And for a limited period, Napster will give you a free Creative Zen V MP3 player. The cons; no Mac users, you need to use Napster's own software, the sound quality is technically inferior at 256kbps, when you cease the subscription, you lose the tracks and it is unclear whether the tracks are compatible with all MP3 compatible music players.
Zavvi, the new high street store that is filling the void left by Virgin, will soon launch a new download store called zavvidownloads.co.uk and will offer not only music downloads but also PC games and movies. Although no pricing has been revealed, expect Zavvi to be extremely competitive and offer roughly the same song catalog as HMV.
(10) Tesco Digital
Tesco Digital is the download arm of retailing giant Tesco and offers music film and TV as well as Games. The music section offers more than 3 million tracks at rock bottom prices. Tesco had the cheapest price on all top 20 tracks, starting from only 57p. Album prices start at under £5 and you can of course earn Clubcard points. Support for mac is not available and some of their songs are only available in WMA format which restricts their compatibility. The MP3 tracks are not DRM protected but WMA are. Tesco probably provides the cheapest no-frill music download store out there.
The battleground is a tough one though with early players like Vitaminic, and more recently Virgin Digital and Wippit, disappearing due to tough trading conditions. But the rewards can be enormous as Apple showed with the roaring success of iTunes.