Monday, February 04, 2008

iTunes and DRM - Destroy Real Music

Ignatius Low gets nostalgic over music in it's physical form in an article for The Straits Times today (I still want a CD I can hold - Feb 3, 2008 - article is only available to online archive subscribers. ST hasn't quite caught up with the NYT yet!).
ABOUT a month ago, I made my first purchase from the Apple iTunes Store. It was a tedious and deliberate process, given that the iTunes Store hasn't been launched in Singapore yet, but it had to be done..

He goes on to question what would be lost if the world does move wholesale to digital downloads .. nostaligic memories of browsing for music with friends in the local record shop .. the personal stories forever tied to each CD or LP on your shelf.

Travelling and the Real Music Store Experience
Thankfully, we haven't totally lost the music store experience yet, although it is dominated by the major chains like HMV. I hope we never lose it. It would deprive me of one of the most enjoyable travel activities - whenever in a new city, I always try to make time for a few hours at a local music store to browse and buy. It is a great way to get a lock on the local music culture and discover some amazing artists.

DRM - The Worst Idea Ever Foistered on the Music Industry
There is a more insidious side to the whole digital download approach to purchasing music. Its called DRM - Digital Rights Management (or Destroy Real Music if you prefer). Still in use for most music on iTunes, DRM restricts your use to iTunes and iPod, and you only get 5 chances to register with another computer (like if you re-install or upgrade). Apple of course are not exactly forthright in telling you all this, prefering to regale you with all the benefits of digital downloads.

To make a LOTR analogy, its as if DRM is the poison holding Théodred under the spell of the wicked Wormtongue (read RIAA).

When I look at my record collection, I see the albums I inherited from my parents - even grandparents - and remember the thrill of exploring and learning to appreciate all this old and unusual music. I was the new generation rediscovering the musical gems of my elders, and I think a critical step towards musical maturity. It is how I found a place in my collection for Les Paul & Mary Ford, Duke Ellington and Fats Domino along side Iron Maiden, Madonna and Regurgitator.

If DRM and digital downloads become the way of the future, then this is one formative experience I will be unable to bequeath to any grandchildren I may be lucky enough to have.

The Dawn of a DRM-free Golden Age?
Thankfully, DRM seems to be on the way out - at least for music if not movies for the time being. And anyone who really cares about music should add their strength to kill it good and proper as soon as possible. EMI were perhaps the first major label to signal the trend, and break away from Wormtongue's spell.

The EMI move significantly bolstered Amazon's move on itunes with their DRM-free MP3 store (although in a perverse turn of logic, I can order physical CDs from Amazon yet because I live in Singapore I still cannot purchase their mp3 download versions. Go figure!)

Amazon's move was likely no insignificant factor in Apple now moving to dump DRM in their new iTunes Plus service (probably more correctly called iTunes Minus). Aple are still extremely coy in telling their users what's really going on (try searching for DRM on the iTunes site). I think it is scandalous how little information is provided to iTunes users about the DRM restrictions that are still applied to the majority of songs you can purchase on iTunes.

To put it simply: beware!
  • When you purchase music on iTunes, it is still DRM-locked, unless you are clearly given the iTunes Plus purchase option.
  • If you buy DRM-locked music on iTunes which is later made available unlocked in iTunes Plus, you can upgrade but you will have to pay for the privilege of getting you music purchases switched over (currently 40c per song or 30% of the album price)

Personally, I plan to stick to purchasing CDs, especially with so many available today at a nice price (like S$11.95 and up for recent chart albums). When amazon finally make the mp3 store available to me, I'll probably use that for the odd purchase (especially for individual tracks).

But iTunes? Sorry Apple. I love your iPods, but your support for DRM leaves such a bad taste that even now that you are reforming I will run a mile before willingly purchasing from your store.

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