The inevitable has happened: Apple has managed to convince its record label partners to drop the DRM from the iTunes music store, effectively killing DRM in the digital music market.
Apple had been selling music DRM-free for several months under the iTunes Plus brand, but the selection of music was limited to EMI’s catalogue. Apple has now announced that the remaining major labels will be adding their music to iTunes Plus.
The real sense of inevitability comes from the recent launch of Amazon’s competing MP3 store, which I wrote about at the beginning of December. Apple’s move is really just playing catch-up to Amazon, it offers music in the same bitrate (256kbps), at slightly higher prices (Infected Mushroom’s Vicious Delicious album costs £7.99 on iTunes, or £6.99 on Amazon). The main difference is the AAC format, which in my opinion sounds better at a given bitrate than MP3, but plays on less devices.
Of course, Apple also has the massive advantage that is its GINORMOUS base of iPod and iPhone owners, who will find iTunes music much easier to buy and sideload than Amazon’s service. Every time an iPod owner plugs a shiny Apple gadget into a USB port, buying the tunes from the hippest bands will be only a couple of clicks away. Hell, Apple now even allows iPhone owners to buy and download music directly to their iPhones over a 3G data connection. It simply doesn’t get easier to buy music and listen to it immediately. It’s tough to see Amazon stealing too many customers from iTunes, which has apparently now sold 6 billion tracks worldwide.
So am I going to start buying digital music from the iTunes store?
Nope. The cost still doesn’t reflect the value of digitally downloaded music. I can buy Vicious Delicious on CD from play.com for £6.99, rip it in FLAC (or any other high-quality format I like), keep the CD on my shelf and be safe in the knowledge that I can re-rip it to a format that suits any future device I might purchase. Oh, and I get a tangible product to hold. The appeal of having my music download instantly really doesn’t compensate for the loss of utility a digital download brings, especially when the cost is equivalent (or even greater).
Why should I pay the same amount (or more) for a digital download as a much more useful and future-proof CD that sounds better? Where is the money saved on disc production, warehousing and distribution going? To the artists? I doubt it.
I’m sure Apple will continue to sell music at a scary rate, but I’m not going for it until the price drops, the quality improves and the future-proofing can be guaranteed. At any rate, at least the world’s largest music retailer has taken another step towards what digital music really should be about – DRM will not be mourned by many.