Opinion: Music -- Buy, Rent, Beg Or Steal?

When it comes to online music, you're spoilt for choice -- or are you? What are the upsides and downsides of the current Australian music market models? The reaction to Microsoft's launch of Zune Pass last week by the readership was initially one of excitement, followed up by a rather muted "meh" when it became clear that what Microsoft was offering was a subscription only service. Gus did a run-down of the subscription offerings over on Lifehacker, and this got me pondering on online music choices and their pros and cons. Here's my take on the Australian market as it stands.

Buy Examples: iTunes, BigPond Music Pros:It's entirely legitimate, and somewhat free of DRM; there's certainly workarounds via CD ripping and things are less restricted than they used to be. Choice is fairly wide with a tilt towards more popular music. You don't get anything physical, but you do get the correct artwork and sometimes exclusive extras.

Cons: Per track pricing means that if you want to listen to a lot of music, it'll get costly pretty quickly. For positional reasons, folks don't like giving Apple money, and there's no denying that iTunes (the dominant platform) charges Australians more for digital music than our American counterparts. Also, there's always that danger that your friends will notice you spent $1.69 on Barbie Girl in a drunken spending frenzy.

Rent/Subscribe Examples: Zune Music, Qriocity Pros: Equally legitimate to buying music, but cheaper on a per-track basis -- technically speaking. The key pitch here is the width of available material, usually expressed in the millions of tracks. Millions of tracks means there has to be something you'll like, right? Subscription services are frequently streaming ones, and that means you don't have to give up storage space for your tunes. Most subscription services also make it easy to listen to specific genre types at the tap of a finger or click of a mouse. Cross device portability means you can have the same favourite saved tracks across laptops, smartphones and tablets.

Cons: The selection is indeed wide, but for every dozen tracks you'll love, there are going to be tens of thousands you hate, unless your music tastes are incredibly wide. The key downer for subscription music is inherent in the subscription model -- as long as you keep paying you can keep listening, but once your payments dry up, all you'll hear is yourself whistling.

Beg: Free online music sources Pros: It's free! It's also legal to listen to freely available works, and there's quite a lot of them out there. Whether you're lining up playlists in YouTube or searching out creative commons music, you never need to pay a penny for a wide variety of musical types. Online streaming radio means never even having to think about the next track.

Cons: It can be time intensive to track down your tracks. Quality can be highly variable; there are solidly some gems out there, but there's a lot of dross as well, and there's no telling if that YouTube video you queued up has somebody's "amusing" remix of Smack My Bitch Up in the middle of Mozart's Fifth. Online radio quality is usually quite low, and you may be served hundreds of ads for services you can't even use.

Steal: Pros: It's free! The world's music sources can be yours for only the cost of a download.

Cons: It's illegal. Sure, some may not fuss about this, under the whole "rich artists are rich anyway" or "try before I buy" argument, but somewhere, somebody's got to get paid. Equally, while it's rare, given it's illegal, there's always the risk of legal action for your downloading actions. Quality is also highly variable, because you're relying on others to do the ripping and sourcing for you.

Images: Photosteve101, Brandon Giesbrecht and aloshbennett