2007 Tech Trends No. 9: DRM-free music

Share

drm-music.jpgTalk to many companies in the music industry, and they’ll tell you DRM is woefully misunderstood. It’s not about stopping naughty file-sharing, they’ll say, it’s about enabling music fans to do Cool Stuff. Except that so far, that’s not true.

In theory, DRM technology could be used to let you share music with friends, who could then legally buy it. But how many music services do you know who are allowing that, hmm? All too often, DRM has been a negative thing, not just stopping you from pirating music, but preventing you from listening to it on your own devices.

That’s why the music industry is starting to ditch it. EMI was the first major label to allow its songs to be sold DRM-free (indie labels have been doing it for ages), but the next six months will tell if the other major labels – Universal, Warner and Sony BMG – follow suit.

Going DRM-free is a fairly big gamble for the record labels. The theory is that the reason relatively few music fans buy lots of digital music is that they’ve been put off by the restrictions of DRM, so prefer to buy CDs (no, Kids, really they do) or get their tunes from file-sharing networks.

The hope is that DRM-free songs will attract both those groups, without leading to a huge upsurge in piracy. But it’s still too early to tell whether EMI’s decision to sell DRM-free tracks on iTunes (and other music sites) has led to a big sales increase – which in turn would nudge the other major labels towards following suit this year.

There’s certainly pressure building. Later this year, Amazon will launch its much-trumpeted digital music store, while HMV has already joined the DRM-free bandwagon.

Meanwhile, the major labels are all investigating whether it’s worth their while to go DRM-free, which should kickstart regular rumours about how their trials are going.

Y’know what though? I’d kinda like to see a happy medium between DRM and DRM-free music. See, if I buy a track, I want to be able to play it on any device that I choose – my iPod, my mobile phone, my PSP or PS3, and so on. DRM-free solves that issue.

But I’d also like to see more innovative distribution models come in for digital music, allowing me to share songs with friends while ensuring that whoever actually wrote / played them gets paid. By definition, that involves some form of DRM. Microsoft and Apple are among the companies filing patents to enable this kind of music-sharing, while mobile digital music stores like Omnifone’s MusicStation are also eyeing the prospect.

THE BIG QUESTIONS

1. Is it just DRM that’s been stopping people paying to download music? If sales don’t rise as DRM-free tracks are introduced, the music industry will have to cast its net wider to solve the problem.

2. Will iTunes remain top dog in the digital music world, as other stores (particularly Amazon) offer DRM-free tunes? Competition can surely only be a healthy thing for the music biz and fans alike.

THE FULL TECH TRENDS LIST
1: Telly 2.0
2: Green Gadgets
3: Blu-ray and HD DVD convergence
4: Virtual Reality
5: Touchscreens
6: Mobile social networking
7: Lifecasting
8: Bluetooth music
9: DRM-free music
10: Wi-Fi personal media players

Stuart Dredge