EMI goes DRM-free with Apple, but will other record labels follow suit?

Columns & Opinion, MP3 players, Top stories

itunes-store.jpgHurrah. So, EMI has announced plans to sell its entire music and video catalogue on iTunes without any DRM protection, from May.

I’m assuming this isn’t just an Apple thing either, as fellow online music retailer 7digital has already announced plans to also sell some DRM-free EMI tracks (specifically, the album by The Good, The Bad and The Queen).

Good show all round. It was only Friday that I was ranting on about why iTunes’ new Complete My Album feature wouldn’t boost album sales if songs were still DRM-protected, which makes me look like an idiot a visionary.

But there’s plenty of implications to chew over now. Principally these: will music fans be prepared to pay 20p extra per song for no DRM and better quality, and will the other record labels follow EMI’s lead in scrapping DRM from their digital downloads?

Take the first point first. EMI’s digital catalogue will be available on iTunes for 99p per song from May, which is 20p more than the DRM-protected versions, which will still be on sale. However, the DRM-free songs will be higher-quality, encoded at 256kbps.

The latter point is a clever move from Apple, which might otherwise have left itself open to accusations of profiteering – “What, you want me to pay EXTRA for the right to play songs I’VE bought on whatever device I want?” Not only will the new tracks sound better on your iPod / Zune / mobile phone / whatever, but crucially they’ll also sound way better pumped through your home audio system.

Us consumers are left with a choice, anyway. “It will soon become apparent the degree to which consumer prefer paying a little bit more for unprotected music, or whether they’re happy to suck on DRM if it makes their music that much cheaper,” says Steve Mayall, from music industry research and strategy company Music Ally.

It’ll be interesting to see how album pricing on DRM-free iTunes albums compares to CDs in the real world though – when you can buy a CD for less than eight quid in your local supermarket then rip it at whatever encoding rate you want, it’ll still be stiff competition.

The second question is whether the other record labels will follow EMI’s lead. To which hundreds of independent labels can justifiably leap up and shout “WE led THEM!”. Indie labels were first to catch on to the potential of selling DRM-free music online, some more enthusiastically than others according to Mayall.

Check out eMusic, for example, which has a huge catalogue of DRM-free tunes to buy, all from independents. But what about the other major labels? It would be wrong to pitch EMI’s deal with Apple as the start of a landslide, but a lot depends on how many people opt for the DRM-free songs when they go on sale in May.

“It’ll all come down to market forces,” says Mayall. “If EMI starts to make bundles more cash from the premium DRM-free tracks, then the other labels will have to follow.”

Watch this space, in other words. Meanwhile, the wait for Beatles songs to be sold on iTunes goes on – it was the other rumoured reason for today’s press conference with EMI and Apple, but no such luck.

Stuart Dredge
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