The DRM-Free Music Conspiracy

April 17th, 2007

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing the impact, first, of the statement by Steve Jobs that Apple would love DRM to go away, and, second, the decision of EMI Music to offer that alternative.

You’d think millions and millions of music lovers have been clamoring for that freedom, plus superior-quality audio, all at just thirty cents extra per track — or whatever the corresponding price increase will be in your country.

In the real world, where most people buy just about the equivalent of two CD’s worth of music from iTunes, the real issue is whether they really care one way or the other. Or was this whole exercise mostly a means for the music companies to extract more money from singles and encourage people to buy albums instead?

Lest we forget, just a week before the initial announcement of those higher-quality DRM-free tracks, Apple had already introduced a “Complete My Album” feature, that offers you a convenient way to get the entire album after buying one or more tracks.

Is that just altruism on Apple’s part, or a decision to kowtow to the music industry’s concerns that too many of you buy singles and don’t bother with the albums?

Let’s look at an intriguing conspiracy theory and see if it holds water:

First of all, aside from the concerns voiced by the governments of a few European countries, and rival music player makers of course, there’s relatively little inconvenience for most of you with the present setup. Very few iPod users confront the five computer limitation, and if you do, you can always deauthorize one of them and get on with your life. The limits of copying a single playlist to a CD are also seldom reached. Most iTunes customers simply download the tunes, and either make CD compilations or use their Macs or PCs or iPods to play there libraries on.

As to sound quality: Well, as I’ve said before, there are certain categories of music, such as acoustic piano and harpsichord, where you might hear compression artifacts under good listening conditions. This is especially true if you’re critical of such things. Otherwise, it may not be a difference sufficient to cause concern. With popular music, the differences vanish in the haze of today’s homogenized production techniques.

At the same time, however, the music industry has been beseeching Steve Jobs to raise prices or at least offer older product at a lower price (or the existing price), and newer content at a higher price.

So how do you reconcile all these considerations with one package that will appeal to most people who have concerns about such things, and provide more income for those greedy music companies?

Aha! Raise the prices, yes, but give the customers the illusion or reality (depending on your point of view) that they are getting more value for their money. I’m not saying that the famous blog from Steve Jobs was just a smokescreen for what was really going on behind the scenes, but it is an unprecedented ploy, at least for Apple. So maybe it was after all just a pretense to create the climate for what was coming.

So now we have the standard 99 cents version and the $1.29 version, and to entice you to spend more money, you get a file with no copying restrictions whatever. Although you might have to jump a few hoops, you can download that track to a Microsoft Zune player, or players from lots of other companies that support AAC. And I’m willing to bet that a lot more will come around by dint of a firmware update of one sort or another to add this encoding scheme.

More to the point, it shouldn’t matter anyway. The other music companies will soon offer their own versions of those DRM-free tracks in all the popular file formats; even lossless, if that’s what you want. Other music stores will soon jump into the game. So you could, if you wish, buy tracks from the Zune Marketplace and get them onto your iPod. There will be little shareware utilities that will ease the process for Mac users who care, assuming such people truly exist.

Then there is the promise of audio quality that’s “indistinguishable” from the CD. True? Well, it depends on the acuity of your golden ears, or the sound system you’re using, not to mention the source material that will reveal alleged sonic defects, if they are even audible by human ears.

Let’s forget the hype, even though there’s substance behind it. Without spending one red cent, the music companies have found a way to extract more money from you for their music. What’s more, they make buying albums more attractive, because you’ll be paying less per track.

Even better, most of you will thank them for it.

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3 Responses to “The DRM-Free Music Conspiracy”

  1. Michael says:

    “Is that just altruism on Apple’s part, or a decision to kowtow to the music industry’s concerns that too many of you buy singles and don’t bother with the albums?”

    Surely, Apple’s pricing is based on the wholesale prices they’ve negotiated with the record labels. The labels would certainly like to sell more albums – why wouldn’t they? We can overheat the language here, but I can see no problem with any of this. If the prices are agreeable to people they’ll buy and you’ve got a bargain all parties have agreed on. If the prices aren’t agreeable, people will spend their money in other ways.

    I’ve never bought from the iTMS, but I agree that a five computer restriction was not too onerous. There is DRM, and then there is abusive DRM. Here’s the latest example:

    I’d sooner have no inconvenience at all. But if DRM is to be used, the conditions shouldn’t be too onerous and the product should actually work when used as advertized. Apple, unlike others, seems to have delivered on that.

    But I’m afraid this whole area gives a rather unedifying look into human nature. There are people who have no qualms about stealing content, there are others who have no scruples about how they protect material they own the copyright to (even to the extent of rootkitting people’s PCs), and there are content distributors who see in the requests of content distributors for DRM a useful means for obtaining software lock-in (I don’t mean Apple here, but you-know-who).

    And to top it off, the topic has been seized on by a fourth unlovely group – the self-righteous who’ve spotted in it an opportunity for moralizing. One particularly stupid columnist in the _Guardian_ recently remarked that you could lend a book or give it away but DRM was meant to prevent your doing that with music. Is it even necessary to point out that you cannot legally photocopy (the entire contents of) a book that’s still in copyright? The problem with digital material is that copying is trivially easy: unlike the book you can give it away _and_ keep it. More to the point, you can swap a copy of it for a copy of something else you haven’t got. I don’t much care for DRM, but I don’t see any excuse for ignoring that content owners actually have a legitimate interest here.

    I think the EMI-Apple deal sounds attractive. The full album will cost no more than before, have somewhat better quality, and there’s no DRM to cause compatibity issues. For myself I listen to classical music, so I don’t want a track on its own anyway – what good would one movement from a symphony be? I usually buy CDs and rip them, although I have bought from Magnatune who sell downloads without DRM and also guarantee a good price to the musicians. If Apple’s unprotected downloads from EMI include something I’d like and I can’t find it on CD except at a fair bit more, I’ll probably buy.

  2. a z says:

    One thing DRM-free music does is open up possibilities to other vendors. For example, it may be easier for DJ software companies like Serato and Rane to add AAC format to their products for DJing. With DRM-free AAC now available will they add AAC support to their products?

    Another industry that could see an uptake is wireless network products that pipe music around the home/office. Many equipment manufacturers couldn’t support iTunes (and presumably WMA) due to DRM. Perhaps this field will open a little more.

    Finally, DRM-free means I’ll never have to worry about Apple or another vendor shutting of my access to product I’ve paid for. Five computers may seem more than needed for most user’s needs, but remember at one time the limit was actually 7 computers (and we could “stream” music via iTunes sharing capability). Apple took changed that limit without warning. What would prevent them from doing the same in the future?

    I will agree that the content industry is good at getting people to repurchase their media libraries. With no DRM it may be easier to format shift that material so I am not forced into buying it yet again. I’ve never bought music from iTunes, but I may be willing to do so now just as I can buy DRM-free music from places like bleep or audiojelly.

  3. Michael says:

    “With no DRM it may be easier to format shift that material so I am not forced into buying it yet again.”

    This ability to shift formats is the advantage of lossless encoding, too, isn’t it? It’s overkill for listening purposes and a waste of space on a portable, but it’s good for archiving.


    “The answer is lossless compression. … You can then convert it into whatever lossless or lossy format you need to when it comes time to put it on a portable. If you need to convert your music to another format tomorrow you can do it in a batch overnight and not have to waste days re-ripping CDs, getting those problematic ones to read in you CD-ROM, tediously correcting tags set by the awful online databases, and so on.”

    Once you make that archive you can convert to 160kbps VBR AAC for an iPod, to lower bitrate AAC for a smaller shuffle, to MP3 for burning MP3 CDs for a car radio, to Ogg Vorbis if you’ve got a Linux machine, or whatever else you might need to do.

    Nevertheless, hardware support for AAC is better than people think and likely to get better. So without the additional bar to interoperability caused by the DRM, the iTunes downloads are going to be worth a look at the right price.

    It looks like they’re trying to raise interest right now, actually:

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