Buying MP3s is stupidly difficult

2022-04-23  Music,   Tech

Many video game fans mourn what has happened to their hobby in recent years. With the announcement of each new game, from even the most acclaimed studios, a question lingers - have the developers followed the trend and stuffed it full of microtransactions? And all too often the answer is yes. How could it possibly get any worse, gamers ask? Well friends, I tried buying some music last week and I’ve seen how bad things could become.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to buy some MP3s. Yes, nearly every song in existence is available for free on Spotify, but what would I do if that service ever ceased to exist, or got locked behind a paywall? It makes sense to keep a trickle of your favourite songs coming in to your offline library so you can own the music, keep it, and listen to it on the Tube without paying.

Having relied too much on Spotify for years, I wasn’t up to speed with MP3 pricing and was expecting to get ripped off, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that most songs are a reasonable 99p, with a few slightly below that. That’s not too bad when you consider that as far back as the early 2000s you’d buy a CD album for £10 with an average of ten songs or so.

Amazon Music

My first stop was Amazon, because that was where I bought my digital music in the early 2010s, but I was shocked to find just how badly the customer experience had deteriorated since my last visit.

Your first steps are to open the homepage, search for a song, and click it - so far, so good. But instead of treating songs like normal items for purchase, Amazon now redirects you to an Amazon Music page that really wants you to stream them instead. To buy a track, you have to find a what is basically a hidden menu item under Purchase Options > MP3 Music.

This takes you to another page plastered with Amazon Music stream buttons, but at least this time there are prices next to each song that you can use to purchase them. If you click one of these, you’ll be taken to a page that looks like the Amazon basket, but it’s not. If you don’t click Buy there and then, it’s gone. That’s right - if you want to buy MP3s on Amazon in 2022, you have to purchase each song or album individually. So if you have a list of 40 tracks to buy like I did, you’d have to go through the whole process separately for each one. I didn’t have time for that, so I moved on.

iTunes Store

I Googled for alternatives, but there are basically no modern MP3 stores, so I went to the only other one I knew - the iTunes Store. For a company known for its slick user interfaces, Apple has really let itself down here. iTunes as a whole feels like a relic from the mid-2000s, and the store is weirdly unreliable for what is basically pages loading in a browser. I even had to restart the application a couple of times when it wouldn’t load anything.

When it does work, there is once again no basket. Ever the optimist, I decided to try adding the songs I wanted to my account’s wish list in the hope that I could review and purchase them all together later. But lo and behold, there’s no option to buy the whole list at once! If the Apple forums are to be believed, this was a feature but was removed because some users complained they were accidentally clicking the Buy All button. Sigh.

With no other options, I persevered. At least all the individual buy buttons were lined up nicely with all the songs in my wish list. But buying the tracks only revealed more problems. You see, there’s no grouping when you buy songs from the iTunes Store - every track you buy triggers a separate transaction on your payment card and a separate confirmation email. Resigned to spamming myself, I got about halfway through my 40-song list before my bank started blocking the transactions and I had to switch cards.

You’d think that the wealthiest company in the world would notice if its purchasing system was so convoluted that users were blocked from buying its products because the payments looked fraudulent, but apparently not. However, to give Apple credit where it’s due, downloading the songs to my iPhone was really smooth afterwards - much more so than it would have been if I’d bought the songs from Amazon.

Get it before it’s gone

It’s sad that there’s no good option to buy and own digital music anymore, and that the stores that remain are so neglected by some of the biggest companies in the world. Amazon and Apple are clearly set on chasing Spotify and earning their money through subscriptions, but that model doesn’t suit everyone, and even if that is their strategy, is it really necessary to be so anti-consumer as to remove features that made it easier for customers to buy things and give you more of their money?

It’s only a matter of time until these storefronts become so delapidated that they close down completely, so if you have any desire to build a digital music library then I’d suggest you move quickly to download your favourites before they’re gone. Past that? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to predict a rise in CD sales in the near future - buying a physical disk and ripping it could soon be your only option if you want to legally own MP3 music.

And let’s hope this isn’t the future of gaming. At the moment the digital options are there, but in you can still buy a boxed copy of your favourites and keep them on a shelf so you can still play them in years to come (in most cases, anyway). Having seen what’s happened in the music industry, it’s all too easy to imagine a future where subscription services rule and the possibility of true ownership is ripped away from us.

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