Ignore the pirates and download music legally

The digital soundscape has changed, making it easy to buy tracks on the internet. Chiara Cavaglieri reports

Reports of the death of the UK music industry have been exaggerated. Just last week, for the first time in five years, the music industry – a valuable export for UK PLC – returned to profit. And the news revealed by the the BPI, the industry body, follows hot on the heels the passing of the Digital Economy Act

With the Government getting tough on pirate digital music and one in five internet users admitting to online piracy, according to a survey from price comparison website Moneysupermarket, what are the best and cheapest ways for fans to enjoy their favourite artists legally?

You need to identify what is a bona fide site. Fortunately, the recently launched Music Matters campaign has made this a painless task by creating a certification trustmark which features on legitimate music download websites. It also has a website, www.whymusicmatters.org, which lists all the partners featuring this logo so that consumers can easily identify where they can buy music that is legally available with the permission of rights holders.

"The idea is to educate consumers rather than come in with the heavy stick," says Niamh Byrne, creator of the Music Matters campaign.

Legal music sites typically fall into one of three categories. Firstly, there are standard "à la carte" download services from the likes of iTunes, Play.com, HMV and Amazon.

"Among the top vendors are Apple through its iTunes Store, and Amazon which sells audio downloads along with more traditional CDs. Both stores offer DRM-free (digital rights management, or anti-copying software) downloads at reasonable prices," says Richard Plant from Computerworld UK.

Secondly, there are subscription-based services from companies such as Sky Songs and Napster which charge a monthly fee for either an unlimited streaming service or a set number of downloads. Finally, there are online streaming sites, most of which are funded by advertising.

"Other popular services include 7digital, which offers paid and free downloads of music and audiobooks, and Spotify, which as well as streaming thousands of audio tracks directly from the internet allows users to buy, download and keep files," says Mr Plant.

How appropriate these different packages will be depends largely on usage. Sky Songs, for example, is great value for heavy downloaders, charging £4.99 per month for five track downloads and unlimited ad-free streaming. Comparable packages include eMusic, which charges a monthly fee of £9.99 for 24 downloads, £13.99 for 35 and £17.99 for 50, or Napster, which offers three packages ranging from £5 to £15 per month, for between five and 15 MP3s and unlimited streaming.

For people who want to download individual tracks, often the cheapest is Amazon, with prices between 29p and £1.09 for singles and £2.99 to £8.49 for an album.

Last week's number one single, "Once" by Diana Vickers, can be downloaded for 49p on Amazon, while We7 is the most expensive choice, charging a mammoth £1.26. However, if you were to download Usher's new album, Raymond V Raymond, 7digital would be the cheapest option at £5 and HMV the most expensive at £7.99.

However, price isn't the only factor to compare when picking the right package. Access to a big catalogue of music may be crucial to some users who may be disappointed with the selection offered by some. In terms of sheer numbers of tracks, iTunes comes out on top, with more than 11 million songs in its catalogue, one million more than its rival Amazon. For an all-encompassing service, 7digital, Sky Songs, Spotify and eMusic offer everything from artist biographies and music news to playlists and free sample tracks. Sky Songs will recommend downloads based on your listening habits.

While there is no doubt that the popularity of digital tracks will continue to grow, there are some pitfalls to watch out for. Firstly, consumers should be aware that downloading tracks and constantly streaming may affect their broadband speed and potentially their monthly bill.

"If you're a relatively high user or you're sharing your broadband connection with others, you need to make sure you have a high or unlimited download package," says Mike Wilson, broadband expert at Moneysupermarket.

Providers are coming round to the fact that the way we use technology is changing, but it's important for heavy downloaders to work out their average monthly usage and ensure that they have a package that caters for high usage. Many packages will offer unlimited downloads, albeit for a higher premium, but even these will have a fair usage policy.

Expert View

Niamh Byrne, Music Matters

There's a lot of confusion about what is legitimate and what isn't, so we've created a trademark for legal music services.

There are many ways to consume music and the digital landscape is constantly evolving. There could well be a plethora of new services offering different ways to access music which is why it's good to have a mark. For me it's a very simple way to help people identify which sites to use.