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The DRM-Free Breakthrough Finally Comes

I went to bed last night hoping that the announcement today wouldn’t just be the Beatles and would be something far more important. It turned out to be exactly the case and the DRM wall is finally starting to get smashed. Apple and EMI have announced a partnership to be the first distributers of DRM Free music from major labels.

I think I’m more relieved than anything because there’s a popular feeling that this is a long time coming. I’m not exactly sure why they have chosen the pricing they have for individual tracks and why they have left the DRM alternative available. Personally I would have prefered a more simple solution comprising of getting rid of DRM entirely and keeping the price at the same 79p or 99 cents rather than having two downloads, one cheaper with DRM and the other one slightly more but with a higher bitrate and of course, no restrictions.

The reason I don’t care about the higher bitrate is simple. I’m not an audiophile. I don’t have special speakers and as of now I don’t have any high-end earphones and even if I did I’d still be happy with the current bitrate. The basic speakers on my macbook, although they’re not that loud, do the job just fine for me.

The thing that makes up for the crappy and confusing pricing that Apple and EMI have come up with is the fact that albums will still cost the same amount DRM or not, which clearly means that albums will no longer be DRM’d at all which is nice. Especially for people like me who only ever buy albums and never individual tracks. On the other hand it’s hard to really blame apple to some extent for making things confusing because when you only have one of the major four labels supplying DRM-Free music, confusion is innevitable. They could have made it simpler though.

However, the simple fact here is that DRM is finally crumbling away and pricing structures will change in time. Therefore you can only really see today’s announcement as a very positive thing for the future growth of digital music.

I think everyone should get together and buy an EMI album in May when DRM-Free comes into effect, or maybe even today since you don’t pay any premium to upgrade your DRM’d tracks to unrestricted format. We’ve been wanting this for so long so now it’s up to us the customers to show our support for the percieved risk EMI is taking.

edit: I forgot to really touch on the format the downloads are going to be in so I’ll go over that now. Unfortunatly, this is not an entirely positive thing. Apple are going to go with AAC format which would lead people to believe that they are either aren’t going fully DRM-Free. Probably more likely however, the compression for AAC is far superior to MP3 and that’s their reasoning. I think Apple are probably going down this route because Steve did mention that he hopes this will convince people that he is serious about his anti-DRM message. I think if he was to go against his own word he would get a huge backlash from the media and I’m sure he doesn’t want that. I think what Apple are trying to do is give better quality AAC downloads with the best compression and the lowest file sizes as possible while also making their music DRM-Free.

I think Apple may be being clever and purposefuly giving people better quality downloads as well as unrestricted so that they can have a reason to use aac over mp3. However I think people will flock to start supporting AAC in their players and mobile phones if Apple are selling music in that format. It’s really the lesser of two evils.

I mean considering that now people can’t use .wma or .aac on players that only support MP3, it’s really saying that AAC has to become the format that brings all the stores and device manufacturers together, or at least one of the formats that all the main device makers have to support going forward. Despite the fact that DRM will eventually be going away for music completely, mp3, wma, aac aren’t all going to converge into one and I can’t see microsoft or anyone else dropping their format even if they do drop DRM.

What I think we will start to see soon is aac, mp3, wma and any other common formats all being included in players from iriver, samsung, sony possibly when they go drm free, toshiba and all the others including hopefully Microsoft with the Zune. I think playsforsure will continue being used by napster, rhapsody, urge, virgin digital etc for their subscription services but for music purchased to keep I think we’ll see DRM-Free from these guys.