Part of the fun of being a DJ is researching (and purchasing) new music on a fairly regular basis, but how do you know where to find that perfect track? In this review I’ll be giving a fairly detailed overview of three of my favorite music outlets–Beatport, Juno Download, and Trackitdown–and what the strengths and weaknesses of each of them are.
A site’s homepage is like your first impression upon meeting someone–it really sets the tone for your experience there. You want something that is attractive, fun, professional, and clean, and it needs to encourage you to explore further and see what there is to offer. Sure, music outlet sites have the added advantage of users coming to them with the intent of buying music (and thus have motivation to be there), but that doesn’t mean that this area should be overlooked. So let’s see what kind of impression each of these sites gives.
Beatport probably has the cleanest design of the three sites, but it’s also the site that has most recently been re-designed (and updated to make lots of use of HTML5). One thing Beatport chose to do was to have many of the elements (such as your preview playlist and personalized recommendations) behave as panels that overlay the main page while you are using them but are otherwise hidden (this can be a good and a bad thing, as navigation might be a bit confusing at first). The integration of the most recent tracks from artists and labels you have subscribed to is a nice touch. All in all, some nice, clean design.
I’m not exactly sure how long Juno has kept its current look, but it’s definitely the busiest of the bunch. The good part is that figuring out the navigation is not that difficult–pretty much everything you need is in the top tenth of the page or in the huge mass of featured tracks and albums that make up the body of the page. It can be a bit overwhelming, though, and the cluttered motif continues throughout the remainder of the site. I would almost label this as “information overload”, but it’s not so much that navigating becomes impossible (thankfully).
Trackitdown decided to take a very image-heavy approach to their homepage design (whereas the interior pages tend to be more on the minimal side), but by using scale and position to their advantage it doesn’t feel quite as busy as it actually is. Featured items rotate in and out of the main promo areas to snag your attention, and the navigation is easy to find up at the top of the page. Unique to Trackitdown is the ability to view the site in either the default Light theme (shown in the image), or switch to the Dark Theme and make the lights go out.
Ok, so the first impression has been made and now you’re ready to get down and dirty with finding those amazing new tunes that are going to make the dancefloor go crazy this weekend. For a music site, this is an area that really needs to work well–after all, if you can’t connect users to the music they want, they are not going to be dropping their hard-earned cash in your store. So how well does each site do this?
Beatport’s search is simple, but it works. Type in whatever you are looking for in the "Search" box (be that artist, track, album, or label) and it will take you to a page like the one shown above. The results are, at first, easy to quickly sort through as only the top results are initially shown. It becomes a bit more challenging once you dig into the View All option, though, as you are presented with a huge list of anything and everything that matches. An interesting note is that there is no advanced search at all, and no way to filter genres or labels (these were present in Beatport’s previous site, though). So it’s streamlined and it works, but be prepared to wade through a lot of results to find what you are really looking for.
To me, Juno’s search function is almost like playing the slots–pull the lever and there is no telling what you will come up with. Unless, of course, you decide to use the advanced search without changing any of the default options–then I can all but guarantee you that the result will be "Sorry, but there aren’t any products to display here" (hooray for bugs!). Change the options around some, though, and it appears to not only behave correctly, but the filters available are pretty well set up. The results list, on the other hand, is going to involve a good deal of scrolling (so be sure to take frequent breaks to rest those fingers, and stretch beforehand!).
Even if it’s not as fancy as Juno’s search, Trackitdown’s search is probably my favorite of the three. It’s very good at accurately finding tracks, it provides just the right fields to search for, and the results list is a great balance between organized and overload. You can even make a playlist out of the search results if you want to really make sure you are getting the right music. There’s not really an advanced search, per se, but once you do your initial search you will receive all of the additional options (such as searching by artist, track title, release date, etc.).
You’ve found some search results that look interesting, so it’s time to dig in and see what they are all about. The product page should be a good mix of promoting the music as well as adding in some good ol’ fashioned peer pressure (aka "reviews") from other users. It’s also nice to get a little information about the release, or even a quick blurb that summarizes what this track is all about.
Following the clean design established by the homepage, the product page has a simple layout that focuses on the music while still providing some information (if the label provided it, that is). When you are looking at an individual track you don’t get the informational blurb, but you do get a full waveform, as well as Beatport’s best guess at what key it is in. Interesting to note here that Beatport does provide both the beats per minute (and it is mostly accurate) as well as the key for individual tracks (bpm even shows up in the album view). This is a new feature as of the site re-design, and it’s one that is unique to Beatport. A nice, visual way of browsing related tracks is provided for you in slideshow form at the base of the page (also a new feature, and a helpful one). Oh, just don’t trust the genre tags–not only are they far from detailed enough (hard dance, hard techno, and hardcore are all lumped together–really?) but I’ve personally found them to be off on many occasions. Finding a Gabber track that has been flagged as House is great for a laugh, though.
Juno’s product pages have features I like, and several I don’t. Let’s be optimistic and start with the good things. First off, there’s a preview player built in to the page itself, and it works (as well as shows you the full waveform) for any track on the page–whether you are looking at a single track or a massive compilation. This is independent of your preview playlist (detailed in the next section), which is cool for quick browsing. Also neat are the image badges towards the bottom of the page that indicate things like "DJ Friendly" (translation: full-length tracks) and "DRM Free" (seriously, why purchase anything that wasn’t?).
Something that is equally helpful and aggravating is that everything is a clickable search or filter link (or so it seems). So be careful before you click that one remixer’s name–you may find yourself back on the search page. I’m also not terribly thrilled with the layout, but it is consistent with the Juno clutter design–especially with the column of all sorts of recommendations on the right hand side. Which one do I choose?? At least Juno has a pretty good selection of genre tags, and they are actually accurate.
Oh, and a pro tip: the "Buy" button at the top of the page, just to the right of the artwork? Yeah, it doesn’t do anything except take you to the bottom of the page where you have to select specifically what you want to buy from the check boxes, then hit the smaller "Buy" button.
Remember how I mentioned that Trackitdown followed a fairly minimal scheme on its interior pages? The product page is a prime example of that. It clearly displays the vital information about the track or album, what other tracks are on the same release, and provides recommendations for other tracks you might enjoy. Unique to Trackitdown you will also see user comments show up on this page (go figure I took a screenshot of a track without comments, even if it is an amazing hard dance stomper). Another stand-out feature of Trackitdown is displayed here, and that’s the depth of genre tagging. There are major genres, and then a whole slew of sub-genres, and all of them are clickable to search for other tracks with the same tag. This is an amazing way to get a feel for how different genres sound, not to mention a big help for finding new music!
(Bonus points for anyone that catches that reference)
Simply put, a music site just really isn’t much without a way to preview and save tracks. Each of these three pages has their own take (and terminology) on these concepts, and with fairly creative implementations to boot.
Beatport’s playlist is far and wide my favorite, though it’s not perfect. So what’s so great about it? Well, if it were the previous (Flash) incarnation of the site…I wouldn’t be saying anything about it being good. But when they re-designed the site for HTML5 they made a complete change in how your playlist worked, and the result is something that is incredibly smooth and well-organized. If you add an individual track to your playlist it will show up with album artwork, key, tempo, and easy ways to navigate back to that track (the track name) or the release it came from (the artwork). Nice, but nothing really unique there.
What is unique about Beatport’s playlist is that when you add an album to your playlist it doesn’t just add a huge list to your cue, it will add the album artwork and title with all of the tracks as sub-items underneath it. It even defaults to a collapsed state so you can see what else is on your playlist. That may not sound like much, but it is a wonderful organizational tool. Beatport also does a great job of having a player that persists at the top of the page without having any skips or refreshes when you navigate to another page on Beatport. Juno also does this, but they use a new window to host the playlist (which has its own frustrations).
Unfortunately Beatport’s playlist does have some (fairly frequent) bugs with it (for example, some tracks or albums will be added multiple times for a single click or removing an album will not remove the tracks inside of it), but it’s still a work in progress and these will hopefully be ironed out in time.
As far as saving tracks goes, once you add a track to your cart you have the option of adding it to your "Hold Bin", where it will be stored away until you come back to purchase some of the gems you’ve already found. The Hold Bin is organized by Tracks and Releases currently, which is fine for starters. I’ve heard a rumor that a planned feature is to allow users to sort tracks in their Hold Bin via custom tags or folders, so that will be a huge asset if it ever comes into being. I really wish they would provide an easier way to access your Hold Bin, though. Right now you have to navigate to My Account and then My Hold Bin just to find it. Ah well.
While having a preview playlist that breaks out into its own separate window may have some merit to it, I honestly find Juno’s version difficult to use. They tried to cram too many features into something that should have been very straight-forward, and the result is a playlist where there’s way too many ways to navigate away from the playlist itself. Recommendations and related suggestions abound to an excessive degree, and more often than not I just end up closing or ignoring it and using the built-in preview players on the product pages (that, at least, works very nicely and makes sense).
Juno wins the award for "Easiest Way to Save a Track" thanks to their Wishlist feature. Every search result and product page has an option to add that item to your Wishlist, so you don’t have to buy the track first and then save it for later (unlike the other two). A link to your Wishlist is ever-present at the top of the site, so it’s easy to access. The layout is exactly the same as a search results page, though, so it suffers from the same visual clutter issues (yes, this is a recurring theme in this review).
While it doesn’t have the organizational flair of Beatport’s player and it does skip as it reloads every time you navigate to a new page, the Trackitdown preview player is a very well-designed approach to this task. The playlist itself mirrors the layout of popular mp3 player applications and allows you to preview any section of the track you wish. Visually the player stands out from the rest of the page, and it even follows you as you scroll so that it is always in the frame. You can do all your shopping from here without ever setting foot on a product page if you wanted (though I wouldn’t recommend it as you would miss out on all the great features there).
Trackitdown does have a "Save" feature for items in your cart, but it really feels like this was included as an afterthought. I didn’t even know it was there until Wondershock pointed it out to me. It works well enough, but there’s really nothing special to it (and apparently it only started working recently). Not a whole lot else to say here, really.
Once you have your tunes purchased and you’ve checked out, it’s time to finally get your hands on the tracks you worked so hard to find. Again, this seems like it would be simple, but each site does it differently.
Each site has a web delivery option, and each site does web delivery in nearly the same way. Download your tracks, one at a time, from a silly fast server. Beatport’s option is about as basic as it comes–no options or anything, just straight-up music delivery. This is fine for smaller orders but tedious for albums or any larger orders. However, they do provide a neat alternative: a desktop application that manages your downloads for you.
Of the two I highly recommend the Downloader, and not just because it is an AIR application (and AIR is a fun programming language). This app significantly reduces how long it takes to download your order and allows for some customization in the file and folder structure the tracks are saved in, which is nice. Be sure to keep a close eye on which tracks have completed versus which haven’t, though–I’ve had a few experiences where the Downloader would just skip over tracks without downloading them, or get hung up on certain tracks and need to be refreshed to continue. Another thing to beware of here are the default id3 tags on your new tunes–expect them to be wonderful if you take your tunes straight into Traktor, but a lot of work otherwise (I have to fix some id3 tags for every Beatport order, sadly).
As much as I may complain about Juno’s layout and the nearly pointless preview player, oh my goodness their delivery system is fantastic. If you choose the web download route you have the same options as the others–download the tracks one by one from a fast server. You can also download the album art (and Juno keeps high-res versions of these), which is a HUGE bonus if you end up using something like iTunes, Zune, or Media Center to listen to your tracks (or even for having the album art in your mixing software of choice). On top of this, Juno is flawless with their id3 tags–I haven’t had to fix one yet. I find myself preferring Juno for album and compilation orders for this reason alone.
Even better, though, are the alternate options. You can choose to have Juno bundle your entire order up into a nice, neatly arranged ZIP package and download that in one go, or you can use their new Java-based download application (the choice I would recommend). Like the Beatport Downloader it opens in a window separate from your web browser (though it is not a stand-alone application like Beatport’s version), but it’s much more stable and reliable. I have yet to find anything to nitpick with Juno’s download system–it’s that good.
And last…and least…we have Trackitdown. There is only the web download option, and you can only download one track at a time. There are no fancy options, and it gets tedious in a hurry. This is really a let down after getting used to a site that is otherwise very intuitive and well done, and I really hope that they come up with some alternate download options like their competitors did.
Something that did not show up in the sections above were the issues of price and selection–two hugely important areas to consider. There’s an interesting scale here, where Beatport represents the best overall prices but has the most limited selection (this seems to be changing, thankfully, though they still tend to get tracks later than their competitors) and Trackitdown has the top, cutting edge selection at a very high price. Juno falls squarely in the middle, and on the selection front it also carries some smaller labels you don’t see on either of the other sites. All three sites offer sales, so it’s worth following them on Twitter, Facebook, and the like to get access to the promo codes.
Oddly enough, while Trackitdown has the most expensive single tracks if you can find the compilation album that your tracks are offered on it ends up being significantly cheaper than the same compilation on either of the other sites. For example, one of the latest albums from the IHDS label costs $21.99 on Beatport, $19.99 on Juno, and $11.71 on Trackitdown. However, try ordering the first track on its own and we now have $2.33 for Trackitdown, $1.99 for Beatport, and $1.89 for Juno. I know I said Beatport tends to be the cheapest (and in this case it isn’t), but the price of older tracks eventually falls to the $1.49 mark in most cases, so it’s not a complete lie.
So after 3,000+ words we’ve basically come to the conclusion that your best course of action is to use all three of these sites when hunting for new music to fill your sets as each has good, useful qualities that make it unique. Personally I tend to favor Beatport for most of my shopping (partially because I started with it, but primarily because I find the navigation and Hold Bin to be extremely easy to use and useful), but I turn to Juno and Trackitdown for that added variety of labels I couldn’t get otherwise. Juno is a great middle ground, even if searching and navigating is frustrating, and they have the best downloader and id3 tagging out there. Trackitdown is the true king of selection and cutting-edge quality, but you pay for it with high prices (unless it’s an album, then it’s the cheapest).
Hopefully this has been a useful review, and I would love to hear what questions you have and your own thoughts on each of these sites (or recommendations for other sites that you use)! Thanks for reading!