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The Mac Music Report: Buy, Buy and Buy Again!

As the dust settles on the newest version of iTunes, and iTunes Plus music, DRM-free and of higher quality, you wonder about the implications of this new way of distributing online music.

Let me start by asking you a question: What’s better than selling you something? How about selling you the same thing, or a slight variation thereof, a second time, or even a third? It just gets better and better, if you can get away with it at any rate. And right now I’m certain the music industry, in the throes of rapidly declining CD sales, must be feeling a little desperate and hoping for such miracles to turn things around.

Now of course this doesn’t mean that the likes of Madonna and Paul McCartney will necessarily suffer. We all know they are comfortable, cozy and very, very rich. The music executives aren’t starving either, although there are countless numbers of lesser acts that have yet to see the big money that’s supposedly part and parcel of show business success.

That takes us to the fundamental question of acquiring music. How do you buy your music? Does it come on CD, or have you succumbed to the digital world? Or is a combination of both? For the time being, I’m going to sidestep matters of illegal downloads. Instead, let’s talk about doing everything on the up and up, and buying from legitimate music vendors.

Say you have spent a few hundred or a few thousand dollars buying songs from iTunes. Perhaps you’re satisfied with your purchase, but maybe you’re one of the small number of people who find that the audio quality leaves a little bit to be desired. At one time, Apple boasted that its standard 128K AAC files were close to CD quality. More recently, they have adjusted the claim to “high quality” without that direct comparison.

With the new DRM-free, 256K versions, the claim has been tempered slightly from being as good as the master recordings to “virtually indistinguishable from the original recordings.”

Well, that sounds realistic enough for me. The higher resolution tracks will probably sound just great to the vast majority of you, but I rather suspect that, unless you have the right equipment at hand, even the 128K versions will sound pretty good on most musical content.

In the coming days, you will even read some casual, anecdotal listening tests that reach various conclusions, mostly, I suspect, that the enhanced content sounds noticeably better than the original 99 cents versions. However, they will be rated as somewhat inferior to the CD.

Unfortunately, few will use the proper listening methodology — double-blind with matched levels — to determine if a difference is even audible. That needs to be done before assessing quality differences.

Right now, as you know, iTunes Plus songs come strictly from EMI, including some of Paul McCartney’s solo albums. But The Beatles are still missing in action. Over the next few weeks, there will be lots of independent music as well, and we all hope the other major music labels will get in on the act.

If anything, they ought to appreciate how the situation has turned out. In exchange for no DRM and higher quality, they get another 30 cents a track. If you want to upgrade your existing tracks, it’s 30 cents per song. A full album upgrade will cost you 30% of the original purchase price. No, it’s not $3.00 as originally claimed in some tech news sources.

That’s not so bad, except that Apple wants you to pay for the upgrade all at once. There’s no option to just purchase some singles and albums and not others. One hopes this all or nothing posture will change over time, when Apple realizes that folks with huge iTunes collections may not be prepared to pay a bundle up-front to experience iTunes Plus.

Regardless, the music companies ought to love it. Maybe they’re not getting you to buy the entire track all over again, but those 30% upgrade fees are just fine. Before long, of course, remastered versions of the entire library from The Beatles will be available, and then EMI will have the pleasure of selling them all to you one more time, assuming the new versions are significantly better than the original CDs released over 20 years ago.

On the long haul, though, the music industry’s greed may, I hope, do them in. You see, they still don’t understand that we don’t buy albums because they have the Warners or EMI label, for example, on them. We buy music because of the artist, and if those artists sold their work directly to us, they might actually sell just as many copies, only they’ll make a whole lot more money. The music companies give even the most lucrative acts a mere pittance of the revenue they receive from selling product.

Will the new era of DRM-free digital music hasten that needed overhaul of the music industry, and rid us of such financial terrorists as the RIAA? I surely hope so, but it may be a long time coming.