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... hello, er., or whatever name this site will be going by next week.

The Russian music-download site has been blinking on and off the Internet this week. Each time it's resurfaced at a new domain name, however, it's retained the same attributes as before: absurdly low per-song and per-album prices (from 15 cents and $1.99 each, respectively), DRM-free downloads in your choice of formats, a relatively limited inventory (just under 800,000 tracks) and a sketchy legal situation.

AllofMP3, in its various incarnations, maintains that it has a valid license to sell music in Russia, and that what other countries' citizens do is not its problem. That argument may not hold up even in Russia: This article (PDF) from Suffolk University Law School's Journal of High Technology Law suggests that the site would lose a copyright-infringement suit filed in Russian courts.

But let's set aside the legal issues for a moment. Let's look at pricing for music from other online stores--by which I don't mean iTunes or the other buck-per-song outlets, but the smaller sites selling music from independent labels for less. Do AllofMP3's prices seem fair compared to theirs?

* At eMusic, you can buy songs for as little as 27 cents each.

* MagnaTunes sells albums for as low as $5 apiece, or 33 cents a song for a 15-track album.

* Amie Street's variable-pricing model rewards success; songs are initially free, but once enough people download them, prices rise. Its home page lists one album for just 86 cents, but others go for about $3 or $4. For a name-brand artist--for instance, The Game and the Barenaked Ladies--you're looking at $7 to $9 an album.

In other words, AllofMP3 has somehow managed to undercut the pricing of music stores that cater specifically to indie artists willing to discount their work for competitive advantage. I am a big fan of the way the Web makes markets more efficient--but you can't always sprinkle magic Internet dust on something and make it nearly free.

There's one other issue here: Is any money making its way from AllofMP3 and its variations to the artists whose work they sell? No. Even enthusiastic reviews of the site agree on that: The artists aren't getting paid.

This site and its fans say that's because the record labels are refusing all offers of payment. But maybe those labels--not all of whom are Large Evil Corporations--have a good reason not to want to do business with a company like this.

So: Ethically speaking, is downloading from AllofMP3/MP3Sparks/AllTunes any better than grabbing a song off a peer-to-peer network?

At this point, I expect to hear from a lot of annoyed AllofMP3 shoppers who think I'm sucking up to The Man here. If you're among them, fire away in the comments. But I'd also like to hear from anybody who writes or plays music for a living: Have you gotten a check from AllofMP3 or any sites like it? If one showed up in the mail, would you cash it? What would you sell your work for in an open market?

Finally, if you shop at a U.S.-based music store that charges less than the ones I just mentioned, please share your experiences too.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 6, 2007; 8:07 AM ET
Categories:  Music  
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