EMI rocks *and* rolls iTunes

Michael Gartenberg seems to have the scoop (is he allowed to, given his job?): “Apple and EMI have announced that they will be selling music without digital rights management”. But there’s more: “albums will be DRM free, have the higher sound quality but will remain at the same price point as current albums. Format is AAC and encoded at 256kbs”. That’s awesome.

[Update: seems I just missed the press releases and my weird Australian time zone means the press hasn’t caught up yet. Some tidbits from Apple’s announcement:

  • It’s not happening until May, but it’s worldwide.

  • There’ll be a “one click” upgrade button that’ll give you the enhanced tracks for the cost of the difference between the original price and the premium you have to pay for DRM-free singles. No word if this will update whole albums for no cost. Hope so.

  • Steve Jobs: “We think our customers are going to love this, and we expect to offer more than half of the songs on iTunes in DRM-free versions by the end of this year.”. Read: “You’d better buy the DRM-free tracks or we’re screwed. But if you do, a couple of the other labels will follow suit!”

  • EMI music videos will also be un-restricted. That’s great. I haven’t started buying music videos for a couple of reasons, but I love the idea of having my own playlists of them.]

To provide some context on the whole issue, Apple currently sells music from the four major record labels in the world, plus countless independents, through its iTunes store. The music they sell is relatively low quality, and comes with copy protection that precludes (a) sharing your iTunes-bought music library easily with your friends, and (b) playing your iTunes-bought music on any portable music player except the iPod. This copy protection scheme also significantly increases the chances that your music won’t play in fifty years time, if you still have copies of it.

Most other online music stores have similar restrictions, with a notable exception. The second largest online music store is emusic, which sells (better quality than iTunes) unprotected music from a large selection of labels excepting the big four (or thereabouts). I’ve been meaning to investigate these guys for a while, because I like buying things online due to instant gratification, and I’ve heard good things about their catalogue.

So I’ve been buying music from iTunes for a little while, not particularly fussed by the problems outlined above. The low quality was more of an issue for me, frankly, but that’s probably because I like Apple in general and don’t mind the iTunes/iPod lock-in. And I wasn’t aware of the quality issue in day-to-day use — the music sounds fine on my stereo and of course on my iPod — it was just that I knew in principle that if I hooked up a really nice system and looked for the difference, I’d be able to pick it.

I guess having lost one music collection so far on MiniDisc (way too tedious to transfer my music — recording the audio stream in real time onto my computer), I guess losing another set if my iTunes music became similarly too inconvenient doesn’t bother me too much. After all, you usually buy music before you know if it will be in you “top 10 of all time” list, and you never listen to everything in your collection with the same gusto. Well, in my case at least.

But that’s just me justifying it. Quality and longevity of iTunes-bought music has been the biggest problems with moving to the new media; why go backwards from CD, which works so well? So in one swoop, this pairing by Apple and EMI shows the rest of the music industry that this business model can work, and it should only be a matter of time before a lot more unprotected music turns up on iTunes. In fact, it should only be a matter of months before the independents follow suit (since they generally sell the same music, unprotected, on emusic anyway).

Very good news. Now, when are the other labels on board, when does iTunes become more (or truly) worldwide, and when does the same happen for video?