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What's the deal with variable pricing--Ask the Editors

In this week's MP3 Mailbox Monday post, MP3 editor Jasmine France answers questions regarding the new variable pricing being implemented by online music stores, and points out the best file type for a multidevice household.

Q: I am writing about the new iTunes price change. I remember reading that it would happen, after Apple announced it a couple of weeks ago. I was ecstatic about having iTunes Plus with all of the songs, and the opportunity at having cheaper prices. However, at the time, it seemed that some songs were going to go to a new price of $0.79, with most staying at $0.99, and a small portion going to the higher price of $1.29.

The time has come where the price change is in full effect and I have to say that I am disappointed. Not only are there barely any cheaper songs, but most of the popular songs that I purchase regularly now cost more. Will this be in effect forever, or will they slowly drop the prices? I really don't want to pay more for a song. Most importantly, why the price hike, and when will a better change happen? -- "Disappointed Customer", via e-mail.

A: It's hard to say what will last in this market, but you can probably expect the prices of songs to get lower the longer the track has been available. For example, a hot new Justin Timberlake song may cost $1.29 now, but then go down to 99 cents after six months or so. And maybe it will eventually be 79 cents, although I have to say that the vast majority of low-priced songs I've noticed in iTunes and other online music stores are the short transitional or skit tracks.

If you're looking for a bargain price on digital music, it's a good idea to keep an eye out for the deals offered by various music stores. For example, Amazon MP3 has a daily deal where it sells an entire album for as little as $2.99 (there's a dedicated area for this in the upper left-hand corner of the store's main Web page). Near the bottom of the iTunes Store, you can find the "Free on iTunes" section, which has a handful of tracks that won't cost you a cent. Many other online outlets also offer daily or weekly specials; just don't expect to find many huge hits.

The price hike was a result of negotiation with the labels to get rid of DRM. They've been after Apple to do variable pricing for some time now, as it gives them an opportunity to make more money on hotter tracks. I have to agree with you that it reeks of suckitude, but I don't foresee it changing anytime soon.

MP3 Mailbox Monday is a recurring feature where I answer a selection of questions about MP3 players and accessories, such as headphones, speakers, and music services and software. Check back often to see if the advice presented here might be of some use to you, or send your questions directly to me. (Note: We never include last names, but if you prefer to remain completely anonymous, please state as much in your e-mail.)