The AudioFile: The DRM Dam Cracks

If you saw my April Fool’s post about Apple getting rid of DRM in the iTunes Music Store, apparently the joke was on me. The very next day, Apple and EMI (one of the big five major labels) made a deal to sell EMI’s entire catalogue–minus the Beatles’ music–without copy protection for $1.29 each. But as I read the reports and analyses and talked to some industry folks, I realized there’s a bit of misunderstanding surrounding this, so I’m gonna set this warped 45rpm record straight.

The Reporting
First off, the new DRM-free files are in AAC format, not MP3. Contrary to popular belief, AAC is not a proprietary format created by Apple. The format was created by a group of companies including Dolby, Fraunhofer, AT&T, Sony, and Nokia. FairPlay is simply Apple’s copy-protection system that piggybacks on top of AAC files. So you can see why the comparison below from a Red Herring article about how the Apple/EMI announcement will affect other online retailers rubs me the wrong way:

“[eMusic CEO David Pakman] believes he can still compete with iTunes because eMusic sells music in MP3 format, which runs on a wide variety of digital music players, unlike Apple’s FairPlay format for the iPod.”

Then there’s this Jupiter Research analyst’s “first take” on the announcement (emphasis in the original): “EMI is now making it’s entire catalogue for sale in high quality (256 kbps) MP3 (AAC on iTunes) download with no DRM.” Talk about misleading! Sometimes, I think the media is trying to confuse the public just like Fox News.

And if I hear one more reporter even hint that this all came about because of Steve Jobs’ infamous open letter, I may just have to burn my iPod. We know it’s really because of my April Fool’s post, right?

The Consumers
The biggest news for consumers aside from no DRM is that the unprotected AAC files they’ll get will be encoded at a higher bit rate. The technical differences between MP3 and AAC are many, but the main things are that AAC supports way more audio channels, and AAC sounds better than MP3 at lower bit rates (160Kbps and lower). Granted, the likelihood of most listeners hearing the difference between 128Kbps and 256Kbps AAC files is pretty low.

The question on many minds is: Which music players will unprotected AAC files purchased from the iTunes Music Store play on? Here’s a quick list:

– iPods and the iPhone
– Sony Walkman E, A, and S series
– Sony PSP
– SanDisk Sansa e200R series
– Microsoft Zune
– Archos 04 series players, but only with optional $20 software plug-ins
– Sony Ericsson and Nokia music phones

The Artists
I recently had a chance to speak with Peter Erskine, drummer in the seminal fusion band Weather Report from 1978 to 1982. As an artist who has many albums on major labels, I figured he’d be pro-DRM, but he had a very interesting take on the issue: “I would always want to err on the side of freedom for the consumer versus restriction, because I think ultimately there’s a self-leveling mechanism,” says Erskine.

Erskine explains, “It’s like talking about kids and sex–instead of restrictions, education is the answer. Instead of going after some college kid or Napster, record companies should have engaged in a much more liberal and concentrated form of education, and realizing that the paradigm is shifting and there wasn’t a whole lot they could do to stop it. And I think heavy-handed or ham-fisted efforts didn’t do the cause very well.”

The Future
Erskine’s point is that the relationship between consumers and record labels has thus far been based on a lack of trust instead of mutual understanding, and it may be too late now to completely rectify the situation. As I’ve said before, DRM will be around in one form or another, as long as there’s money to be made off it or guarded by it.

But since the RIAA has clearly pursued the wrong path with online music from the get-go, is it even possible for consumers to forgive that? We’ll soon know, once we see sales numbers as other major labels jump on-board the DRM-free bandwagon; if people start sharing the crap out of files on LimeWire and BitTorrent, it may create an even more hostile relationship.

(The illustration above was created by Leah Perrotta, a Brooklyn-based artist and all-around lovely gal. Check out more of her art here.)