Friday, December 21, 2007

When I Was 22, It Was A Very Good Year....

All things considered, 2007 was a fairly normal year for the music business. CD and Retail sales continued to drop, while digital sales continue their outstanding growth, as they did in 06. However, as we approach the end of the calendar, there's one event that could easily become one of the most important decisions made by the industry in quite some time. We're talking, boys and girls, about DRM.

If you read my Best Of 2007 list , you'll see I alluded to this event but didn't expound upon it. Well, that's why the Vault has a blog!

The whole issue of DRM is much too expansive for me to completely cover here, suffice it to say it has become one of the cornerstones of the arguments for Digital Music. For the uninitiated, DRM is what record labels and online stores use to ensure that the music downloaded from them has restricted usage. For example, anyone who is reading this probably has an iPod, and odds are some of you have downloaded a song from the iTunes store. That song contains a DRM technology created by Apple called FairPlay. That technology only allows your purchased music to be played on 5 different computers, selected by you.

On cursory glance, that wouldn't seem to impact your normal music listening habits, but to others, it is the principle of the matter. When you buy a product, it's yours. By all rights, you should be able to do what you want with it, as long as it does not infringe on the personal rights of others. You purchase a car, and decide to fix it up yourself, adding custom parts. No one sees a problem with that, yet there is a stigma with people wanting to share their music with others. Recently, in a Peer-to-Peer Sharing Trial, an RIAA executive stated that even just ripping music from CDs is a copyright infringement. (This involves the whole notion of copyright laws and art, and that's an argument for a whole other day. I will say that I, unequivocally, have never met anyone who has stolen music.)

This year, however, the tide has started to turn for the better. Apple's CEO Steve Jobs wrote a letter early in the year decrying the use of DRM, and stating Apple would support any record labels that would remove it from their product. Shortly thereafter, EMI announced it would start selling DRM-free music across the Web, and they made good of their promise in May. Apple at that time launched their iTunes Plus portion of their store, in which the consumer is able to choose is they want the DRM-free, higher quality tracks or the standard FairPlay files. Over the past few months, other labels such as Universal have engaged in implementing similar strategies. Amazon launched their own Mp3 Download store, with every song DRM-free (As a sidenote, before you go to iTunes, check to see if Amazon has the album first. Their service is terrific, the quality of the files is better, and each has artwork imbedded in it).

However, quite possibly the biggest step forward came with the release of In Rainbows by Radiohead. They completely bypassed the record labels, releasing their album on their own online. What's more, the consumer could choose how much they wanted to pay for the album, which had zero DRM. The results? Radiohead made more off the digital sales from the album than they had with all the other albums put together, according to Thom Yorke himself. Radiohead may claim that their reasoning for the release was based on practicality, however they fail to understand just what it means from this point moving forward.

To the average consumer, this may not sound like exciting news. However, I assure you, it is important. For the first time in a very long while, the record labels are responding to consumer interests, and taking a positive step forward, instead of maintaining archaic policies that do not reflect the times. Within the next year, I would find it difficult to imagine DRM existing in any relevant fashion at all. Music Lovers 1, Labels 0.

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