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Finding DRM-Free Music Online

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Over the past half year we have seen arguably the most significant change in the online music industry since Apple launched their iTunes store in 2003. Following Steve Jobs’ open letter clarifying Apple’s position on digital rights management (DRM) in Februrary, major record companies have begun providing their music online free of piracy protection mechanisms.

The first major label to take the plunge was EMI Music, which teamed up with Apple in May to release its entire online catalog through a DRM-free area of the Apple music store called iTunes Plus. Also in May, Amazon announced that it would launch an MP3-only online music store with songs from major labels by the end of the year.

Just this week, Wal-Mart began selling unprotected MP3s of many Universal Music Group and EMI songs through its website. RealNetworks, MTV, and Verizon have also teamed up to launch Rhapsody America, a music service catered toward mobile phone users that will provide DRM-free downloads, in the near future. Even LimeWare, a P2P software maker, has recently announced that it plans to be part of the DRM-free movement (this time legitimately).

Some of the major music companies have been more tentative than others. EMI has thrown the most weight into the DRM-free movement by unlocking all of its online music. While Universal has agreed to release thousands of unprotected albums and tracks through several online retailers – RealNetworks, Google, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Amazon, and gBox – it has done so on a trial basis that will extend only until January 2008, at which point the company will decide whether it thinks DRM-free music boosts or hurts sales. Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group are still standing on the sidelines of the DRM-free movement and appear to be waiting to see how EMI and Universal fare by opening up.

While the progression of things suggests that all online music will eventually be DRM-free, there’s no need to wait to get in on the DRM-free action. Check out the DRM-free online music retailers below to get better quality music that plays on virtually any handheld music device, on any computer, and with any music program. The retailers covered provide music from both major and minor labels.

Update: We have been informed by a RealNetworks representative that “there are no current plans for a major overhaul of Rhapsody’s store front when Rhapsody America launches” and “there are no plans to increase the number of DRM-free songs available for sale. The number will only change if Universal Music Group decides to offer more albums.” So don’t hold out for Rhapsody America, because apparently the DRM-free offering of that service will be the same as that of the current version of Rhapsody.

iTunes Plus

Apple is the eight hundred pound gorilla, controlling something like 70 to 80% of the online music retail market. CEO Steve Jobs predicted in May that over half of the songs provided through the iTunes Store would be DRM-free by the end of this year.

While most of us are familiar with the iTunes Store, you may not have noticed the discreet link to the iTunes Plus sub-store under “Quick Links” on the store’s homepage. iTunes Plus provides 256kbps DRM-free AAC files for $1.29 per song or $9.99+ per album. That’s a 30 cent per-song premium over DRM-protected songs sold through the iTunes Store.

Already bought a ton of music from Apple? You can upgrade your DRM-protected collection to DRM-free for 30 cents per song, 30% of the current album price per album, and 60 cents per music video. Of course, you’ll only be able to upgrade those songs and videos in your collection that are offered through iTunes Plus.

Artists available on iTunes Plus include Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Gorillaz, and The Beastie Boys.

WalMart

Wal-Mart may not be as sexy as Apple but the retail giant does provide DRM-free music from both Universal and EMI. On Tuesday, Wal-Mart began offering 256kbps MP3 versions of much of its music for 94 cents per track or $9.22 per album. These DRM-free offerings are in addition to Wal-Mart’s previous 128kbps DRM-protected WMA files for 88 cents per song or $9.44 per album.

One big downside to Wal-Mart’s online store: you can only download music using a Windows machine. This limitation alone will make it very difficult for Wal-Mart to compete with Apple for mind share.

Artists include Amy Winehouse, Maroon 5, Pink Floyd, Nelly, and Bon Jovi.

gBox

Feeling generous? gBox, which we covered recently, lets you buy DRM-free music not just for yourself but for others as well. gBox users can create music wishlists that can be embedded in other websites and used by friends, family, and lovers to buy music for the list creator.

Universal is the one major label that has agreed to sell music DRM-free through gBox. Songs are 99 cents each and albums are $9.99 each.

Unfortunately, as with Wal-Mart, Mac users who would like to download from gBox are out of luck. This will put a damper on gBox’s otherwise highly viral business strategy of allowing wishlists to be embedded in social networks.

eMusic

You may not have heard of eMusic but the service, with over 2.5 million songs available, is second only to iTunes when it comes to online music sales. Founded in 1998, eMusic was the first company to sell MP3s, which it continues to do on a subscription, rather than per-unit, basis.

Subscriptions come in two flavors: $9.99 per month for up to 30 downloads per month, or $19.99 per month for up to 75 downloads per month. The coolest thing about their subscriptions: once they end, you still get to keep your music, unlike with other subscription services such as Napster. New users also get 25 songs for free.

While eMusic has a long tradition of selling DRM-free music, they still have yet to get in on any major label action. You won’t find any music from Universal, EMI, Sony BMG, or Warner here. But if you eschew popular music anyway, eMusic could be perfect for you.

Audio Lunchbox

If you like eMusic, you’ll probably like Audio Lunchbox as well. The company’s more than 2 million songs are DRM-free and completely indie.

Customers can choose to pay for their music on a subscription or per-unit basis.

Subscriptions range from $9.99 per month to $250 per year. On a per-unit basis, songs are 99 cents each and albums are $9.99 each.

All downloads are 192kbps VBR MP3 files.

AmieStreet

AmieStreet, which we have covered many times, like eMusic and Audio Lunchbox provides DRM-free songs from artists without major label contracts (although, AmieStreet has teamed up with Nettwerk Productions to provide music from big names like Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan).

The most interesting thing about AmieStreet is its pricing scheme. Tracks individually cost anywhere between 0 and 98 cents. Music offered on the website starts off free but goes up in price as more people download it. Therefore, the price reflects the actual popularity of the track in a similar spirit to an auction.

The tracks sold on AmieStreet are always in MP3 format, but the bit rate can vary as artists contribute songs directly to the website.

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