Local Rhythms – Future of the Album

emiapple.jpgThere are plenty of reasons for the music business to rue iTunes, but killing the album isn’t one of them. If anything, the leading Internet download site is the long-player’s biggest supporter.

Wait, you say – doesn’t the availability of 99 cent tracks make it easy to snap up just that one Fergie tune I like? Yes, but it’s not Apple’s fault if the rest of the record is awful.

I’m a fan of players with more to say than just one song. Every time I tout a performance in this column, you can be pretty sure the artist I’m highlighting is one that goes deep. When I log on to iTunes, I usually buy a whole CD’s worth.

Apple just announced a couple of moves which I think bode well for my way of thinking. Last week they introduced “Complete My Album,” which gives customers credit against the full price of an album for each song they purchase.

Purchase two tracks from Justin Timberlake’s latest, and you can get the rest for eight bucks.

It’s a great way to dabble without getting penalized. You sure couldn’t do that with a CD.

Which leads me to the second iTunes move, which not everybody thinks means good things for the music biz.

EMI, a record company close to bankruptcy, made a bold move last week when they announced they were removing the digital handcuffs from music they sell on iTunes.

It should be noted that other online music stores will likely make the same deal – Microsoft already has tentative plans on their Zune store.

DRM-free songs will be sold at a marked up price, a part of the deal that riled up many. However, the audio quality is vastly improved. Here’s the part that’s so good for album lovers. The price for long players won’t go up under the deal.

It’s a bit of a trick, I admit, and Fergie’s “Glamorous” is still the only decent cut on “The Duchess,” high audio quality or no. But it begins a trend that’s long overdue.

For too long, record companies have treated their customers like criminals, instead of devising creative ways to engage them.

Selling unprotected music should be combined with fan incentives like early access to concert tickets and other goodies. After that, it’s up to the artist to make records that are more than one or two tracks deep. I know they’re out there; I buy (and recommend) them every week.

Here are a few “full length” artists playing locally in the next few days:

Thursday: John Gorka, Flying Goose – Case in point. I would never buy just one Gorka song. The folksinger closes out an abbreviated music series in New London with tunes that can make you weep, laugh out loud or shake your head in emphatic assent. You hear a line like “I live where the bottles break and the blacktop still comes back for more,” and wonder what else he’s got up his sleeve.

Friday: Noche Latina Caliente, Electra – Get lucky on Friday the 13th when you learn the tango, salsa and cha cha cha from some talented instructors. Then dance the rest of the night away to great music from south of the border. Claremont had a night like this a couple of years ago that people are still talking about.

Saturday: Stonewall, Royal Flush – It’s a good Saturday for hard rock fans, with Hexerei and Transcent at the Claremont Moose, but I mention this show for two reasons. One, the Flush touts the quality of the tribute bands it brings in, but this show re-states the club’s ongoing commitment to original local music. Two, Stonewall rocks.

Sunday: Fiddler’s Dream, Latchis (Brattleboro) – Jay Ungar and Molly Mason are joined by fiddling friends Liz Carroll and John Doyle for a night of traditional music. You may not know their names, but you’ll recognize their music from Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The Civil War.” If you don’t want to make the drive south, the duo is in Lebanon April 20th.

Tuesday: The Greencards, Iron Horse – “New Grass,” a melding of old time traditions and contemporary attitude, is probably my favorite genre of music It’s best exemplified by bands like Nickel Creek, the Bittersweets and Crooked Still. This trio just released a new album which should move them from the litte rooms like the Iron Horse to much bigger stages. See them while you have a chance.

Wednesday: Molly Chernington with Kate Wirsing, Canoe Club – Molly’s a Meriden native who took up music while living in Colorado. She has a spare, Shawn Colvin sound, and tonight she’s joined by slam poet Wirsing, which must be a first for the staid Canoe. Should be fun.

EMI To Offer DRM-Free Tracks

emiapple.jpgVia BBC comes word that EMI Music will sell songs unencumbered by Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes on iTunes beginning in May, with more digital music sites to follow. EMI will offer the so-called “premium” tracks at a higher price than the current 99 cents/track. The non-DRM’d tracks will have better audio quality, with a 256K bit rate, which Steve Jobs called “indistinguishable from the original source material.” That’s a debatable claim, but it’s twice as good current 128K AAC currently available.

A couple of pieces of very good news – iTunes customers who have previously purchased EMI tracks can upgrade them, for 30 cents each, to DRM-free. Also, the price to purchase entire albums will be the same. No word how that will work on the recently announced “Complete My Album” feature.

Is this the beginning of the end for DRM? Maybe. EMI CEO Eric Nicoli’s statements on the move are quite extraordinary given the industry’s prevailing attitude on the subject:

“We have to trust our consumers,” he said. “We have always argued that the best way to combat illegal traffic is to make legal content available at decent value and convenient.”

Apple CEO Steve Jobs shared the podium with Nicoli, and had this to say:

“This is the next big step forward in the digital music revolution – the movement to completely interoperable DRM-free music …”The right thing to do is to tear down walls that precluded interoperability by going DRM-free and that starts here today.”

Trust your customers? Tear down the walls? What on earth is going on here? It almost gives one hope.

If customers bite, it means big bucks for Apple and its industry partners, says ZDNet’s Dan Farber and Larry Digman:

Why will the music industry follow EMI’s lead? Let’s do the math.

Say I have 1,000 songs purchased on iTunes with the DRM. Let’s assume all of those songs are EMI tunes. I hate DRM so I’ll spend 30 cents a song to ditch DRM for a total of $300. Multiply that by a million customers and you get $300 million.

That won’t happen overnight, but you can see the sales adding up for the music industry.

For Apple, the math looks like this: More music downloads.

Listen to the podcast. Note: the first several minutes are standard EMI promo stuff, with an advance listen to a Chemical Brothers track.