A few weeks ago, I decided to give Audio Lunchbox a try. They sell albums, downloadable as high quality 192kb/s MP3 or Q6 Ogg Vorbis files, with cover art included. The site wasn't perfect, but it had only just launched, so the few niggles were understandable (and were fixed straight away after I sent an email). Deciding on an Pennywise album from Epitaph, as they were doing a free T-shirt promotion, I paid the just-under-$10 (including one extra free track) and downloaded the files in the 24hr time period allowed.
So now I had high-quality, digital Ogg Vorbis files of an album which, to be honest, I'd already downloaded as medium-quality MP3s from elsewhere. The point of going to the online store was to pay the artists, via the record label, for their work - not to pay an unnecessary distributor - and I couldn't help feeling that not much of this $10 was going to make it through that far. When the T-shirt arrived, shipped from the US, last week (which I wasn't expecting at all) that feeling only got stronger. The record label must've actually lost money on this sale, which means the band are going to lose out as well.
So there's an alternative: to cut out the middle man, all record labels need to be able to sell all their tracks themselves. As an example, there's Easybe's 1-2-3 Music Store, which allows artists and record labels to sell music files directly, using PHP, MySQL and PayPal. That's not an endorsement, I haven't tested the software, but it looks pretty well designed.
Also, as Jon Udell has been writing recently, there's a distinct lack of metadata in audio files these days, even in those from the official sources like Magnatune. One of my pet irritations with MusicBrainz is the lack of 'Publisher' metadata, which is part of the ID3 spec (TPUB) and is even provided by Amazon as part of their XML data. If there's one surefire way to categorise audio files in a music library that will generate more interest in related, unheard artists, it's sorting by publisher, or record label. If I was to find that 20 of my favourite bands were all on the same record label, I'd be sure to take notice of any new bands carrying the same brand. If I could go to that label's online store and pay money directly for something (audio, T-shirts, artwork, sleeve notes, whatever), I'd do it, and if there was a subscription offer for new releases or bulk downloads of back catalogue, that would be pretty tempting as well.
Once that metadata's there, there will be a wealth of new tricks that media players can provide to lead listeners to 'further information' or 'related artists from the same label', but until then these free MP3s are sitting in a dead-end.
[If you want a good starting point for Audio Lunchbox, here's a link to The Wrens' last record, with a preview of the whole album].