Growing up with 8-bit video games and Saturday morning cartoons as main sources of entertainment generally leads to a short attention span -- and a lack of patience. This new generation raised on the virtues of "right now dammit" are even worse. To combat this increased lack of patience, a "hot" story was put onto the back burner last week to soak in the sweet flavours of the inevitable information fallout. In short, I've been busy.
Last week, EMI announced that it would soon be offering its entire catalogue in a DRM-free format. You read that correctly. The entire catalogue, even Dirty Vegas and Everclear, will be sampled at a rate of 256 kilobytes per second, and will be completely unencumbered. Those a little fuzzy on this whole digital music thang may be content with that much information, but EMI has more to offer.
The music will be sold on iTunes (Stevey J was at the announcement shindig -- shown in the above picture) and will be provided in the AAC format. Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) is a standardized format that is similar to MP3, but claims to offer better sound quality at a lower compression rate (laymen: more bang for your buck). Purists cry fowl, as the accepted standard for digital music is MP3, but Apple has its reasons. MP3 is a licensing nightmare, with many different companies claiming the rights to the encoding (ripping), decoding (playback), and file structure (shit you don't care about). On the other hand, since AAC is a proper standardized format, there are no royalties to pay and roughly 60% of the devices capable of playing digital music today support AAC, so it's not a bad business choice.
Now, normally iTunes music is released at 128 kbit/sec, so the jump to 256 pleased SOME audio enthusiasts. The rest bickered and whined that the music is still in a lossy, compressed format and therefore unacceptable. These are the people who own nice/expensive audio equipment and have a properly tuned ear that can pick out tiny discrepancies between the original recording and the lossy version. Quickly: lossy means that the original music has parts of it stripped away that cannot be "heard" by a human ear, and the remainder of the music is squeezed into a tiny format that gets turned back into music at a later time by a decoder such as your iPod. The jump in quality is essentially worthless because one group of people won't notice the difference, and the other would claim the difference is not good enough. These purists want uncompressed, lossless files such as the FLAC format, which will probably show up later in another "upgrade." Which of course will cost more, but will probably only upgrade the tracks to 360 kbit/sec, with another upgrade planned to FLAC for the second quarter of 2008.
The catch to this good news is the price increase from .99 to 1.29 for DRM-free music. It's not a huge jump for small-scale purchases, but with EMI offering to upgrade your entire catalogue of their music at 30 cents a track, it could get pricey. The increase is a victory for the label, but sets a terrifying precedence for the consumer, as the price for a single song has risen 30 cents and there is absolutely no way to justify it. Without DRM, there are reduced software development and licensing costs to Apple and EMI, the encoding process requires fewer CPU cycles to downgrade a CD-quality recording to 256 kbit/sec, and fewer cycles to NOT add DRM at the end, which is a huge bonus for Apple.
Some would argue the increase in file size, which is small to begin with, would amount to a greater amount of bandwidth consumed, and while true, does not justify a 30-cent increase (bandwidth is cheap these days). It could also be argued that since EMI is removing the DRM, they're protecting their investment with a higher price, but with the money they're saving on software development, licensing, and customer lawsuits pertaining to DRM restrictions, they would of already come out on top without the increase. In short, the price increase is absolutely unnecessary.
So while the removal of DRM is the first step in creating a viable business model for the 21st century, it still puts the business ahead of the consumer. The major labels can tweak their business model all they want, but the up-and-coming generation was raised on the freedom provided by the internet, and half-baked schemes like this one just ain't gonna fly in their eyes. But with WMG's shock at EMI's decision (especially during a high-profile takeover) and Microsoft's knee-jerk announcement of its intent to also release DRM-free music, the formerly out-of-step EMI has added tremendous pressure to the rest of the industry to play catch up.