iTunes drops music DRM, life goes on as normal

6 01 2009

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.

Vicious Delicious on iTunes Plus

Vicious Delicious on iTunes Plus

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.

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7 responses

7 01 2009
Ole Koksvik

Thanks for the writeup, Tim! Good news, and a move in the right direction for Apple.

I agree with you that the price is too high still. I think you might be overplaying the difference in versatility somewhat, though.

I don’t buy music from iTunes (nor yet from Amazon), so I’m not sure how they encode their files. But it’s very possible to encode files so that the difference diminshes or vanishes.

Using Exact Audio Copy and LAME encoder you get what’s known as transparent copies, i.e. copies that, although audible differences exist between the copy and the cd, they are very rare, and most people don’t hear the difference at all.

From

Then there’s compatibility. But can you really envisage that any device you purchase in the next 10 years won’t be backwards compatible with MP3? I think that’s hard to believe.

It thus seems to me that the difference in versatility between an MP3 file and the CD is eliminable: if it is there, it is because the vendors don’t encode their music right.

7 01 2009
Ole Koksvik

Bah, formatting got screwed up. I meant to quote from hydrogen audio:

-V0 (~230 kbps), -V1 (~210 kbps), -V2 (~190 kbps) or -V3 (~170 kbps) are recommended. These settings will normally produce transparent encoding (transparent = most people can’t distinguish the MP3 from the original in an ABX blind test). Audible differences between these presets exist, but are rare.

http://wiki.hydrogenaudio.org/index.php?title=LAME#High_quality:_HiFi.2C_home_or_quiet_listening

7 01 2009
Tim

Cheers Ole,
I know the quality of well-encoded MP3 files (or AAC for that matter) is pretty good, but any lossy compression still results in an audio file of lower quality than the original CD. I’m a big fan of using computer-based sources for audio, partly for reasons of convenience (this is the single biggest advantage of digital audio) and also because I think a good quality external DAC provides excellent sound at a price much lower than an equivalent CD player.
I just think that a lower-quality product with lower production and distribution costs should be priced lower.
It’s true that MP3 is here for the next few years, but can you see it lasting as long as the CD? Personally, I can’t.
Bring on high-definition FLAC files (these could be at better-than-CD quality, free from the restrictions of that format), at prices that reflect the cost of production, and I will start buying my music digitally. Preferably directly from artists, or perhaps Apple could apply the App Store pricing model and cut out the record labels entirely – O Brave New World!!

7 01 2009
Ole Koksvik

Yeah, I think we want the same brave new world. And I also think that it should be priced lower. This is the best effect of piracy, in my opinion, it’ll force through a change to lower prices, and many artists will, eventually, cut the middle man out alltogether, pay for their own mastering (if they want it), and all will be jolly. So long as enough people actually pay for the pleasure.

Distribution on flac is also a great idea.

Still, loss in the encoding doesn’t mean a lower quality product — unless someone can hear the difference. Since people can (mostly at least, although w LAME and vbr I’m not sure), there is a difference. But since most people can’t hear the difference in most situations, the products are largely equivalent.. Well anyway, not an important point.

Regarding backwards compatibility to MP3 decoding in future players: maybe not as long as CDs, but forseable future, for sure, I think.

8 01 2009
Rob

I think those of us who spend time talking about and writing about technology and music make more of the DRM issue than the average consumer. Most iTunes users play their music on iPods, on their computers or burn it to CD’s. They use iTunes because it is convenient and works well with their iPods.

If DRM was of significant importance to the average user, Amazon would’ve had customers FLOCK to them to buy MP3’s, especially since Amazon already offers deep discounts on album downloads.

But they didn’t because the interface and ease of use are more important than the rights protection for most people.

Doesn’t mean I’m not glad it’s gone or that it isn’t a move in the right direction though.

8 01 2009
Mark

Can you really see FLAC becoming a purchaseable downloadable option? I realise their quality is way above MP3, but their sheer size I would see as a huge disadvantage.

Good if we can download the FLAC version if we are paying up to £10 for an album, but for our portable players we are just gonna convert to MP3 anyway to save on space (and most prob don’t support FLAC anyway).

8 01 2009
Tim

Rob: good points about consumers apparently not minding DRM as much as techie people. The huge success of iTunes so far demonstrates this. But I think if Apple were to decide to change or stop supporting its Fairplay DRM (similarly to the way Microsoft and Sony have done) people would suddenly become much less sanguine about it. People are also increasingly playing music on multiple devices and streaming it around home networks, which would have concerned Apple if it had been forced to keep its DRM.

Mark: don’t underestimate the speed of increases in network speeds and storage capacity. I think the capacity to download and hold large collections of FLAC-encoded music will not be a problem for long. And the beauty of lossless codecs like FLAC is that you can re-encode to MP3 (or anything else) if you want to. Apple already gives iPod shuffle users the option to automatically compress ALAC files as they are transferred to the shuffle. I would rather have the flexibility to pick the highest quality file for my needs – you can always downscale, but you can’t really upscale.

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