Ask LH: Does It Matter Where I Buy My Music?

Dear Lifehacker, I'm tired of Spotify and I want to move back to buying music. iTunes has a great selection, but will I still be able to play those songs if I switch away from Apple products? Would another service or physical CDs be better? And do artists make more money at one store than another? Help! Thanks, Tricky Tunes

Title image remixed from vasabii (Shutterstock)

Dear Tricky,

You're in luck: while buying music may seem complicated, it's actually a lot simpler than it used to be. Here's what you need to know.

Everything Works Everywhere (Mostly)

When iTunes was first introduced, the music it sold had Digital Rights Management (DRM) embedded into it, which prevented you from playing it anywhere other than through Apple software and products, and also stopped you sharing it with your friends. In 2009, Apple switched to a DRM-free format. As a result. if you buy music from iTunes today, you'll be able to play it on any device or operating system without a problem. The same goes for music purchased through BigPond Music or any other online store.

Note that this only applies to music. Movies, TV shows and ebooks still have DRM on them, so don't buy those from iTunes unless you want to get locked into the Apple ecosystem (or you want to go through the somewhat annoying process of removing DRM).

Quality Is Generally High

The quality of music from legal sources is generally high. iTunes uses 256 kbps AAC (for more on what this means, see our guide to bitrates in music).

The main exception: If you buy an album on CD and rip it yourself, you can store your music in higher-quality lossless format. This probably won't give you a better listening experience day-to-day, but it is handy if you want to ever convert that music to a different format.

Artist Reimbursement Is Similar

If you want to support your favourite artists, the best tactic is to buy directly from their own online store. If that isn't an option, however, don't fret too much: major artists will make roughly the same amount of money through iTunes and other digital services as they do if you buy their album on CD. For independent artists in particular, buying their self-pressed CDs will definitely give them more money. If you're unsure, check the artist's web site (or ask them on Twitter or Facebook).

Enjoy the music!

Cheers Lifehacker

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.


    You can also find sites that give you the option to buy lossless CD-quality versions of the music at the same price as iTunes lossy rates. Quite a lot of the French catalogue can be purchased online from Australia. The site isn't geolocked but some albums are geo-restricted by label contracts (although a proxy will get around that easily).

      Yeah, I don't buy music unless it's lossless and DRM-free. Usually, that means CD Baby and Bandcamp. Both of those, the money goes mostly to the artist too.

      To clarify, I'm talking about buying music, as in paying for a single album or track. I don't mind DRM'd subscription services, I just haven't found one with a decent library yet.

        Try Xbox Music - it has a far bigger library than Spotify, Rdio or Pandora.

          But is that available to Australia? It's pointless comparing global catalogues as they have no bearing on what they make available in each country.

          For instance, compare new release availability in different Spotify markets:

    the only reason i don't buy from itunes (or most other online sources) is because no one provides lossless formats. shooting themselves in the foot there. i just stick to cd's and pirating (yep, i said it)

      here here
      CD's FTW and pirating until I can get to a shop to buy the CD..
      For example, I currently have on my "Buy List"; Ballpark Music (pirated on the weekend) , Tinpan Orange (can't find it to pirate) and Muse (pirated on the weekend).
      And I'm planning to hit the shops tonight to grab them.

      Last edited 01/11/12 10:21 am

        Why do you pirate? Is it because you simply can't wait a few extra days to get to a bricks and mortar store or is it to listen to the album to decide whether to purchase it?

          For me, personally, it's a bit of both.

          I pirate music generally to decide whether it's something I want to buy - a 'try-before-you-buy' sort of scheme.

          I also, however, pirate a copy of many albums on their release date that I have preordered.
          A lot of the time, the preorder copy (I usually preorder for the merch that comes with it) takes up to 2 weeks to be delivered, after the release date.

          None-the-less, as much as I pirate, I also buy it if it's worth the price tag.

            I do this too. An album leaks and I've already I go ahead and download it. I don't believe that's illegal...maybe it is. Either way I've paid my way and don't feel too bad for downloading it. I still buy CDs. I use Xbox music too ;)

          Honestly, I mostly pirate artists on major labels. However, all independent or small label artists get my money. That's just how I see it. If there was a way for me to provide artists one hundred percent of my money in exchange for a lossless download, I would be doing that. Yes, I understand a portion of that money goes into promoting the band, and that's why I'm happy to purchase CD's from small and/or local labels and artists.

          Both... there are some albums I know I want without pre-listening (but I don't get out to shop very often), but the majority I'll pre-listen and then either decide to buy or not.
          Legally, I understand that I'm pirating, but ethically, I know that I am still supporting the artists I like financially.
          I want them to produce more of the music that I enjoy, so I'm happy to pay and I no longer have the time in my life to sit in a Record Store at listening posts (if they even still have them), which is where I spent a vast amount of time in School/Uni.

          It should be noted that (like TV shows) not all music is available globally through stores. Getting CDs for a lot of overseas labels can be quite tricky, and not everything is for sale online globally because of geolocking. I get pissed off with reissue labels who won't sell outside of their home territory, and chances are no one else is going to pick up the rights for elsewhere.

      Strange you should post this claim after one pointing to one of the sites that has a lossless option.

    I would never get less than 320kbps mp3 quality.
    Unless u like high hats sound like "FFS" instead of "TSS"

      I know what you meant, but still looked up the "TSS" acronym in the urban dictionary to see how it compared to "FFS".

      It compared about as well as a hi-hat, tin-hat and an ass-hat... >_< mmmm

      Last edited 02/11/12 11:24 pm

    It depends what music you're into as I tend to use genre-specific sites. For electronic music I would recommend Beatport, it's generally cheaper, gives the option of 320 or Wav or the Apple equivalent, it's DRM free and I've often received extra content as a bonus. I could be wrong, but from what I understand from my friend that has music on there and iTunes, the artist receives better payments through Beatport.

    i really wish more bands would use bandcamp

      Bandcamp is pretty cool...
      I liked the option to download in just about any format you like! As well as the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that the majority of money is actually going to the artist.

    I buy all my music on CD's and rip them myself. Best way to do it.

    Why are you tired of Spotify? I'd love to hear that perspective. Free and paid streaming with offline mode - why take a step back?

    iTunes. Massive selection and it automatically downloads on all of my devices. Unless you're listening on PC with a good sound card and good headphones, you're going to be hardpressed to recognise the difference between 256/320K MP3/AAC and lossless FLAC/WAV. I'm prepared to give up that fraction of quality in order to have one collection across everything, rather than managing lossy libraries for mobile devices and lossless for computers.

Join the discussion!