Thoughts on the Apple & EMI DRM deal

As most people who follow tech news know, Apple did something extremely important yesterday with the help of a ‘Big 4’ record company, EMI. The two companies struck a deal to release EMI’s entire catalog onto iTunes DRM-free and at a much higher sound quality starting in May 2007. Singles will cost $1.29 apiece, while albums will maintain their current pricing ($9.99 to $12.99, although I have seen CD’s for as cheap as $7.99).

Why is this important? Why are many people talking about this?

For the first time thanks to this deal, legal digital music has a real chance at working like it is supposed to. All of that potential that the original Napster unlocked for a year or two is finally being realized. I am not talking about the peer-to-peer file sharing piece of Napster. I am talking about the ability of someone to easily discover music, pay a cheap fee for it, and get high quality copy that works just like any Compact Disc…except a lot easier.

How is this better then going down to the store and picking up the latest CD?

  • Apple has established a new precedent: if a new higher quality version is released, you can upgrade for a cheap fee ($0.30 per song in this case). No longer do you have to pay thousands of dollars to upgrade your old LP or cassette collection to CD. Once you buy an iTunes song, you will have some security to know that you can access future versions without giving up your first born.
  • No DRM brings back the best part of music, the social aspect. I can once again easily share a song or even an album with a friend. Word of mouth and flexibility has always been proven to drive record sales…it has taken the record industry only 50 years to figure this out.
  • Higher sound quality can actually replace CD’s for most people. Most people (probably 90%) cannot tell the difference between a 256kbps AAC file and a CD. Considering the fact that I never actually listen to the physical CD anymore (I rip it then put it in storage), what am I losing buying singles/albums on iTunes? I can easily burn backups, burn an audio CD if I ever got the urge, and can even play on a non-Apple player that supports the AAC format. For the first time, the instant gratification factor of iTunes outweighs minor negatives (not a “perfect” CD copy in my procession). Heck even most iTunes albums these days come with digital booklets to replicate those old jewel case inserts.
  • Freedom to use any music player: I am a huge iPod fan…there is no denying it. But it is comforting to know that in the future, 100% of my music can be moved onto any music player that supports the open standard AAC format. For the first time in history, music buyers will know that their music will be playable in the future without worrying about DRM or a physical device being outdated. Just like everyone in 10-15 years should be able to play MP3’s still, AAC’s will be support.
  • I am not even getting into iTunes features like Complete My Album that will make digital music a blast. Singles will become even more important as labels try to drive album sales…a kick ass single or two or three will result in many people paying the extra $9.01 (or $8.00, or $6.99…or…) to get an album, since their investment in the single isn’t wasted.

I personally cannot wait for May to come around. I know that for now on, if an artist is available on iTunes DRM free with the high bitrate files, I will definitely buy via iTunes instead of taking a car trip to buy the CD.

The music industry as we know it is dead come May.