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Downloading music: Beyond iTunes

Christopher Borrelli
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

It has been a year since Apple Inc. became the No. 1 music retailer in the country. To those of us who miss flipping through record bins and CD racks on a Saturday afternoon, that has been a profound drag.

Still, for those who can't remember the last time they bought an album for less than $7 — 1982? J. Geils Band? — iTunes' sweaty death grip on that No. 1 position has become a very good thing, because wild success breeds complacency. And though iTunes has had numerous tweaks and aesthetic makeovers, its basic pricing scheme has remained unchanged for years:

Songs, 99 cents.

Albums, $9.99.

Unchanged until now: Apple recently unveiled tiered pricing for all songs. The most popular songs go for $1.29; less popular songs sell for 99 or 69 cents. What's remarkable about this is not the chutzpah of the idea but that it goes against the direction of online music retailing. Which is, more sales.

Indeed, you may not realize this, but iTunes is not the best place, or even the cheapest, to buy MP3s anymore. It's not the easiest, either. With apologies to the person who bought me a $30 gift card for iTunes recently, but I have yet to use it — I'm saving it for music I'm betting will not go on sale soon. Why spend $10 in credits for the new Bat for Lashes album if Amazon has it for $5.99?

Still, you're worried about music on a different MP3 service playing on your iPod? Well, copy-protected music is less of an issue these days. Most (legitimately) downloaded tracks transfer effortlessly among formats. The question now is price.

Here is a guide to who offers what and for how much.

Incidentally, if you're skittish about leaving the iTunes comfort zone, fear not: Each of the following MP3 stores may ask you to download a new MP3 program — which extracts songs and albums from its site — but each is easy to download and effortless to use. (No, seriously.) And, yes, each MP3 store will funnel these non-iTunes purchases into your iTunes collection.

iTunes

Apple.com/itunes

Selection: More than 10 million songs — the deepest, widest ranging online music provider. Being No. 1 inevitably means being mainstream, and the most hyped and hottest sellers are the standard focus; being Apple, however, they also score nice exclusives, such as full band sets from Lollapalooza — the new Decemberists album was on iTunes almost a week before it was released.

T.I.'s single "Dead and Gone": $1.29

U2's album "No Line on the Horizon": $9.99

What's on sale? A decent but thin selection. Look to the lower left of the music page. Sales are grouped by albums under $9 or $7. Van Morrison's classic "Astral Weeks" is $5.99; the majority are in the $7.99 range, but there are a few steals — the new TV on the Radio record, the last Keith Urban, indie darlings The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

Wal-Mart

MP3.walmart.com

Selection: 2 million songs, with an emphasis on country and pop hits.

T.I.'s single "Dead and Gone": $1.24

U2's album "No Line on the Horizon": $9

What's on sale? A handful of albums dip below $9 — Adele's "19" ($7), "Breakaway" from Kelly Clarkson ($8) — but $9 is standard. The frustration is with the bare bones Web site, which doesn't spotlight specials or break down by price.

Amazon

Amazon.com/MP3

Selection: 7 million songs — Amazon editors have a nice curatorial habit of spotlighting emerging artists (Neko Case, for example) and pushing classics without forgetting the usual hot and happening hits.

T.I.'s single "Dead and Gone": 99 cents

U2's album "No Line on the Horizon": $8.99

What's on sale? Lots, and grouped by price. But be quick — some sales inch toward $9.99 through the day. That new U2 was released at $3.99. Every Friday five albums are sold for $5 — not lame choices either, but the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, the new Rise Against, classic Hendrix. The real deal, however, is the MP3 Daily Deal, which is always $1.99 and always interesting — an old Jackson Browne album, the new Silversun Pickups. At less than the cost of a Starbucks, it's hard not to sample.

Rhapsody

MP3.rhapsody.com

Selection: 5 million songs, and about as hit-driven as iTunes.

T.I.'s single "Dead and Gone": $1.29

U2's album "No Line on the Horizon": $9.99

What's on sale? Look to the bottom of the main page. You'll find a few regular spotlight sales — $4.99 classics from the jazz label Blue Note, Kanye West albums for $6.99. Otherwise, the easiest way to find dirt cheap records here is to scan the album chart: Katy Perry's album is $6.99, and the new Andy Samberg rap-parody record is $6.99 — exactly what it's worth.

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