When you have a moment, grab a red Sharpie and place a small tick by this date on your calendar to mark an historic event—April 2, 2007, the day the first significant crack appeared in the DRM wall.
You’ve undoubtedly heard the news. At a special event hosted jointly by the EMI Group and Apple, the companies announced plans to
offer EMI’s catalog free of digital rights management beginning in May. You will be able to purchase these unprotected tracks—encoded as 256kbps AAC files—for $1.29 per track. If you wish to upgrade any protected EMI tracks you’ve already purchased from the iTunes Store you can do so for 30 cents a track. If $1.29 is too rich for your blood, you can continue to purchase protected tracks for 99 cents.
So who wins on this one? Just about everyone.
DRM has served Apple well. Although the iPod/iTunes one-two punch has outclassed every competitor to the point where there really is no serious competition, selling music that plays easily only on an Apple-branded portable music player hasn’t hurt. But our purchasing habits are now established. Consumers are familiar with iTunes and accustomed to painlessly purchasing music from Apple’s online media emporium. Now that we’re hooked on the carrot, the stick, in the form of DRM, is less necessary.
And losing DRM gets several European countries off Apple’s back.
France have made several very public stinks about the lack of interoperability in wares sold by the iTunes Store. This deal with EMI allows Apple to shrug its corporate shoulders in a “Hey, don’t look at me!” sort of way and then pointedly peer at the major music labels.
The music industry
There’s a reason the words “altruism” and “record executive” have never appeared in the same sentence. Record executives understand the value of a dollar and most of them will do whatever’s necessary to maximize profits. If the price is right—and $1.29 per track may be exactly right in their eyes—you can bet any notion of “protecting the rights of artists through DRM” will be torn from their talking points.
And surely even the thickest of record executives understands that it’s silly to protect online music when the very same music is available in unprotected form on a CD. Those bent on illegally sharing music can do it easily enough by simply ripping a CD and sharing it over a peer-to-peer network. Stripping DRM from the iTunes Store is unlikely to add to the problem.
This two-tiered pricing scheme should satisfy most people. If you’re frugal and perfectly happy with things as they currently are, go forth and purchase the 99-cent protected version of your music. If sound-quality and interoperability trump price, the $1.29 unprotected version is your meat.
Apple has suggested that albums, regardless of encoding, will be priced the same. This could let you have your cake and eat it too, provided that prices for the DRM version aren’t bumped up. There’s no guarantee how this will work out. In the last year album pricing has quietly become more variable—it’s not unusual to find albums priced at $10.99 and $11.99 rather than the once-standard $9.99 (though back catalog material can also be found for less than $9.99).
This specific deal may finally move classical-music enthusiasts to frequent the iTunes Store. EMI has a wonderful classical-music catalog—back in the day, EMI’s Abbey Road studio was famous not only for hosting the Beatles, but recording the era’s greatest classical artists. But those who enjoy this kind of music tend to be picky about the quality of their music and, for that reason, have found the 128kbps AAC recordings offered by the iTunes Store to be unacceptable. Should they give these 256kbps AAC recordings a try and like what they hear, the iTunes Store gains a previously untapped pile of customers.
Of course this deal gives customers the option to potentially play their purchased music on a wider variety of music players. Currently most major music players other than the iPod support WAV, MP3, and WMA-encoded files, but not AAC. Those companies that have complained about Apple locking out their players may wish to consider adding AAC playback to their devices.
And even if you care not a whit about anything in EMI’s catalog, just wait. This quote from Steve Jobs is the key:
“EMI has taken the first bold step in the music industry and starting today Apple will reach out to all the other major and independent labels to give them the same opportunity.”
If you browse
eMusic, you discover that it sells a mess of music that hasn’t an ounce of DRM. Most of this music is from independent labels and much of it is also sold by the iTunes Store. If Apple is true to Jobs’ word, how long will it be before this same collection of music from independent labels is offered in DRM-free form?
Looks like a win, win, win, yes? In large part, yes. But there are a few losers.
Yahoo Music’s vice president and general manager David Goldberg has spent the last year trying to convince us that the music world would be better off with DRM-free digital downloads. Yahoo Music dabbled in this area by offering a few major tracks that lacked any form of protection. The news largely fell on deaf ears and earned Goldberg hoots of derision as someone out of touch with reality. Turns out he was right, but who will get the credit? Sadly, not Mr. Goldberg.
Adding insult to injury, Yahoo Music was once the deal of the century at $59.88 for a full-year subscription. It just raised its yearly subscription price to $71.88, which is still less expensive than services such as
Rhapsody, but they’ll lose customers over it. (I just cancelled my subscription, for example.)
The other music services
eMusic’s primary advantage was that it sold music without copy-protection. That advantage may shortly go by the wayside. Even if it sells DRM-free music at prices lower than iTunes it won’t offer the same massive catalog of music. Those interested in one-stop shopping may allow their eMusic subscriptions to lapse.
Largely unfrequented though they may be, other online music retailers must now face the DRM issue. Unless you’re specifically interested in their subscription aspects, why shop Rhapsody or Yahoo Music? Their music is just as protected as iTunes’ current catalog—protected WMA files are just a different flavor of DRM. Yes, your current Windows-centric music player may not be compatible with the iTunes Store, but my guess is that your next one will be. The other services will have to step up or step out.
Finally, those who’ve taken delight at slamming Apple for its FairPlay DRM and encoding quality will have to find something else to whine about. Should you be at a loss for material, might I suggest:
• “Why am I paying a surcharge to exercise my Fair Use rights!?”
• “I have the most perfect ears on the planet and nothing short of lossless compression will do!”
• “Ninety-nine cents per track always was and forever shall be too much for a song, regardless of how its encoded. Sell music for 10 cents a track and I’ll buy it. Otherwise, I’ll shop for music on questionable Russian sites and pretend that artists and those representing them are being paid for their work.”
And I’m sure there’s more.
Losers and whiners aside, this is a landscape-changing step forward and one that should be welcomed by anyone interested in music in downloadable form. As excited as I am to see DRM-free music encoded at higher quality come to the iTunes Store I’m even more heartened to see a measure of sanity finally enter the DRM debate. It’s about time.