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  • 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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