Buying Music: Download Songs or Listen to Music Online?

Here are your options for buying and listening to digital music.

Buying and listening to digital music has never been easier. Whether you'd prefer to stream music or own digital files that live on your computer, the options are plenty.

Downloading digital music through services like iTunes or Amazon offer a more permanent route to music ownership, while streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music get straight to the point with access to a massive library for a flat monthly subscription.

There are good arguments for both, but it really comes down to preference. Here we cover some of the pros and cons and details of each to help you decide how to get your music.

Person with pink hair listening to music.
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Digital Media Stores

If you prefer to build up and own a physical music collection—like in the good old days when you would go to a record store and buy a CD or vinyl record—then maybe you'd also prefer to use a online digital media store. These services provide a platform for buying and downloading music, movies, and other content that you can keep on your device and store however you please.

This means that, in addition to storing music on your computer, you can sync it to your iPhone, iPod, MP3 player, or PMP. Digital music ownership also means you can rip your own CDs using a software media player (like iTunes or Windows Media Player), allowing you to build a more physical version of your music library.

However, this type of ownership comes with a few risks. Just like with CDs and records, you can lose or damage the devices your music is stored on. Not all a la carte services allow you to re-download purchased tracks. It's a good idea to have a disaster recovery plan, like an external hard drive or online storage service, to help keep your files backed up. All this could take a lot of time if you have a large music library, but you'll always own the music you've purchased, and there's no need for a monthly subscription to keep it.

Streaming Music Services

Streaming music may be the more flexible and potentially affordable way to enjoy digital music. The drawback is that you don't own any of the music you have access to. This type of digital music service typically offers a monthly (or yearly) subscription rate to access a smorgasbord of tracks covering every genre you can imagine.

Many streaming music services offer mobile solutions so you can listen to the same content on your phone, tablet, or in-car entertainment system. There's also no need to worry about hard drive space, as music is stored in the cloud. (Most streaming services allow you to download music to your device so you can listen without internet access, which consumes storage space while still denying you ownership of the media.)

With playlists and "favorites," you can organize the music you listen just as you would with a media player like iTunes. There's no need to worry about converting audio formats, MP3 tagging, or syncing to your iPod, making the music listening experience a lot simpler. You'll also steer clear of storage disasters like losing or damaging an external hard drive full of music. If you like discovering new music rather than building up a library of oldies, then streaming services are a smart solution. Just remember that you'll never actually own the music you listen to; when your subscription ends, so does your access to music.