DRM is Destiny

So I am writing again for the first time in a long time. I thought I would chime in on the news that sales at iTunes are dropping. This may all be my fault. My iTunes account says that I have made 100 or so transactions with the service since I started using it in fall 2003. My last purchase, however, was September 13th. Why did I stop downloading from iTunes? First, I decided I wanted to buy CDs, since they are roughly the same price as iTunes albums and more tangible. I also stopped buying singles – I want to enjoy whole albums if I am going to buy them. Finally, I started using the eMusic download service and have been very happy with their service.

You may not know eMusic, but it has quietly climbed up to the No. 2 spot in the music download market. How? They allow subscribers to download a number of MP3 files, without copy protection, every month. How? Well, their catalog is limited to mostly odds and ends that major labels don’t own. There’s no Jay-Z or U2, but they do have Sufjan Stevens and the White Stripes. I thought I would try out the service, get a few albums I liked, and quit. I haven’t yet though because my list keeps growing as I discover new music on the service.

So what does this have to do with iTunes? Clearly eMusic isn’t stealing customers away from iTunes because of its selection. I’m not sure eMusic is stealing customers away at all. But DRM does make a huge difference in getting customers to buy into a music service. Napster and Raphsody seem stunted by the fact that there are tremendous limitations on what you can download, transfer to an MP3 player, burn, etc. iTunes has a simple pitch: you can play your music on your computer, burn it, share with up to 5 friends, and play it on the most popular MP3 player in the world. That is why iTunes is the most successful music download service – it has one of the most lenient DRM policies.

Still any DRM is bad DRM. It doesn’t seem fair that iTunes tracks can only play on my iPod and iTunes – what if I want to transfer them to my Media Center PC or my XBox 360? Or my Linux machine? DRM even drains battery life on your iPod! This is why I started buying CDs (which are largely DRM-less since the Sony rootkit scandal) and using eMusic.

Now since I have all this unprotected music, the labels would speculate that I am probably illegally distributing it to all my friends – customers only stay customers if you have a leash tied around them. I don’t share my music on file-sharing services, however, because my bandwith is precious. And when I do share music its with the same 5 “friends” on my iTunes account – all members of my immediate family (I know, I know, Mom should be buying her own copy of The Black Album). So RIAA, if you want to continue to grow your industry why don’t you trust your customers and offer more content for DRM-less download?

Now I Need a CD Holder

With most of the other Penn State interns in State College for ArtsFest, I didn’t have a whole lot to do this weekend. So I took a trip out to the mall and a trip to Walmart. In the process I expanded my music collection.

Lately I’ve felt like I’ve caught up with all the new music I need, so have been going back and picking up some of the classics. I also feel the need to buy more music on CD these days, in order to get better sound quality and no DRM. My rule of thumb has also been to “upgrade” a previously “acquired” album for every new one I purchase.

I never understood why people shop at overpriced mall music stores, but now I realize now the selection is much better. I have been struggling to find any of these classic albums in a Walmart, or even a Best Buy, but this store had a bunch. I picked up The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Parsely, Sage, Rosemarry, and Thyne. Both are fantastic, but I have been really into The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan right now. In general, the themes of 60s and 70s music seem just as relevant today.

Then in Walmart on Sunday I saw they had a couple Led Zeppelin on sale. Since I had some money burning in my pocket (and there was hardly anything else worthwhile there) I bought Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin IV. I bought Led Zeppelin II sight unseen (actually unheard) and I really like it. Now I have a bunch of other albums I want to buy, but I think I’ll have to wait a little bit until I drop more money into the hands of the RIAA.

Hiding With War?

About a week ago Neil Young streamed his new protest album Living With War on his website and I enjoyed the early preview enough to want to buy the album. I typically find political songs to be tiresome, but the music is really strong and the lyrics hit their target. Young wanted the album out as quickly as possible, releasing the downloadable version before the CD version. I didn't see it on iTunes till Monday though and not in their new releases till Tuesday. At that point I decided to wait for the CD.

That's where things seem fishy. First of all, BestBuy.com has no record of this album on their site. It is on CircuitCity.com, but not featured at all. Living With War, by the way, is currently the No. 2 album on iTunes and No. 3 on Amazon.com – its not a niche thing. When I went to Circuit City to buy it today, I didn't find it on the new releases rack. I asked a salesperson if they had it and he said its not in new relases and directed me to the Neil Young section, hidden with the rest of the catalog. I wonder whether these big box stores were instructed not to feature the album because of its political content. It seems pretty unusual to me, perhaps that is because of the unusual nature of the release. Let me know if you bought the album and whether you had trouble finding it.

Windows Macs, What’s Next?

I was shocked and excited when I read about Apple's decision not only allow Mac owners to install Windows on their machines, but also provide software to help them do it. This is certainly big news – so big it is the top story on the New York Times right now. Certainly this is a sign of the growing détente between Apple and Microsoft. Apple recognizes that Windows is the dominating desktop platform at this point and with the Intel chips they can give customers the choice.

I have to imagine all this is also about letting its customers do the Pepsi challenge with Windows and MacOs X. I think Apple will win this battle too. They operating system is much cleaner looking and relatively safer than Windows. I think the delay and shift to Windows Vista will help Apple too. Vista introduces a high end graphical interface and a lot of other features Apple has had for years, Microsoft's acknowledgement that Apple has out-innovated them on the desktop. To capitalize on all the features of Vista, graphically speaking at least, one will need to buy a newer, expensive computer. I expect that when we see the first real Vista-capable (not all "Vista-ready" ones will support the graphics) machines they will carry price tags that are not very different than what Apple is offering.

So next year the cost difference between getting a standard Windows Vista machine or a Mac will not be as significant. And with the power to still use Windows software on your Mac, the decision becomes a lot easier. Macs used to be viewed as an exclusive group of machine, but I think consumer views have changed a lot with the popularity of the iPod. Christmas should be very good for Apple, including its Mac unit.

So my next question is, if Macs can play with Windows, will we see iPods that play with Windows Media? Unlikely in the short term. The recent legislation in France may move things along though. And eventually to continue its dominance, Apple will probably have to adjust. They may not need to open up iTunes though, they just need to make a dual boot iPod or some way to play both file formats. Fight Microsoft on your home turf. Anyway, I am a closet Mac fan and this certainly has me considering buying one soon.

Jingle Bell Rocks

Due to my computer problems earlier this year, I lost a bit of my digital music collection including my Christmas music. So I have been trying to find stuff on iTunes and Napster to hold me over until I get home again. Here are some of my favorites.

A Charlie Brown Christmas – This is my favorite Christmas album of all time, so I have been listening to it quite a bit. The jazzy sounds of Vince Guaraldi convey the spirit of Christmas well, especially from the melancholy perspective of Charlie Brown. This year they released an anniversary album called 40 Years featuring contemporary musicians. I haven’t listened to it all the way through, but there are some interesting tracks on it. Doesn’t quite match the original though.

I discover a lot of music through movies, so I looked up the soundtracks of some recent Christmas movies as well. The soundtrack to Home Alone is really great, featuring new and traditional holiday music from legendary composer John Williams. On the other end of the spectrum is the recent hit Elf, which uses a lot of older Christmas songs in its soundtrack

Christmas Eve and Other Stories by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. There are some original songs, but the real highlight is their remixing of classical pieces, including “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”.

Finally if you don’t celebrate Christmas or like holiday music, I have The Alternative Classical Chillout Album. This was on sale on iTunes when I stumbled upon it so I bought it and I am really happy. It’s the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing pop alternative rock songs which are pretty good.

Alright that’s all for now. I know my list is pretty small so feel free to leave comments with your favorites. Merry Christmas to all.

File Sharing Hurts Pop Artists, Helps Indies

Stumbled upon this very interesting post today about file sharing. A Harvard PhD student did a study on the effect of peer-to-peer file sharing. According to his research, file sharing does have an impact on the record sales of platinum artists, cutting their sales somewhat significantly. It helps smaller bands and artists though, with estimates showing these bands would actually suffer without piracy.

I think this is a sign to the music industry that they need to adjust themselves. Instead of banking success simply on the success of popular acts. They need to start supporting less successful artists and use the current market to promote them. Offer a couple of tracks for free, for example, and people may be more inclined to buy the whole album. I personally got interested in Death Cab for Cutie after getting a free track through iTunes. I followed by buying two of their albums.

Why do bigger acts suffer more from piracy? Probably people feel less guilty about stealing from millionaire music stars. I think quality becomes a factor though too. Many popular artists bank a whole album’s success on one or two hot tracks. Smaller bands typically offer more valuable, since they try harder to put out a great album.

It seems based on this research, charging more on iTunes for popular tracks will probably hurt them even more. I wonder whether the record labels will learn anything.