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.

“The Perfect Thing” – Steven Levy’s Gushy iPod History

perfectthingcover.jpgNot many gadgets are worthy of their own book, but the iconic iPod is no ordinary gadget.   Apple didn’t make the first MP3 player, but by transforming a good idea into what author Steven Levy calls “the perfect thing,” the computer company helped foster a revolution that is creating new industries as it disrupts and remakes old ones.

Levy’s history of the iPod is on firm footing when it studies the ways in which Apple helped legitimize a business model that the music industry viewed with a mix of suspicion and hostility.  But the company’s genius is in refinement, not invention.  Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a charismatic figure, and the best salesman of his “insanely great” vision.  Unfortunately, Levy seems willing to give him credit for things he had nothing to do with.

That’s a shame, because what Steve Jobs is good at – inspiring engineers and designers to perform fits of brilliance – is almost buried in hagiography.  Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field” has drawn in many a journalist.   In this case, much of “The Perfect Thing” becomes a story of Jobs and not the candy bar-sized device he unleashed upon the world.

With the iPod, Apple created a product that was easy to use, powered by technology that was always two or three steps ahead of the competition.  They addressed the vexing problem of getting music from the computer to device by creating a trinity of computer, software and device.  Apple wrote the ITunes software to recognize and add music to the iPod automatically.  When the iTunes Music Store was introduced in 2002, it was built into the software.  Like the elegantly simple Macintosh computer, this integration and ease of use is the key the iPod’s charm.

The iPod’s cultural impact is undeniable.  “The Perfect Thing” provides a lively account of the myriad ways it has affected the landscape of music, television and, with the advent of podcasting, journalism.

Levy made the fanciful decision to let each chapter stand on its own.  Multiple versions of the book have been released, each with a different “shuffle.”

The first chapter of each edition, “Perfect,” paints Steve Jobs as a Pied Piper of the Apocalypse, trying to “bring a little joy in to people’s lives” during the product launch shortly after 9/11.  “Origins” recognizes the true pioneers in the field, from the Sony Walkman to, in the late 1990s, Compaq’s “Personal Jukebox.”  The latter most directly influenced the iPod.

“Personal” looks at the iPod’s tendency to isolate listeners into a self-contained musical world, and the sociological implications of “[making] everyone into an extra from Village of the Damned.”  The chapter also explores the evolution of personal audio cocooning, from transistor radios to Andreas Pavel’s “Stereobelt,” a shoebox-sized behemoth designed with two headphones for shared listening – a feature initially included in the Sony Walkman.

“Download” describes the way Jobs used his personal charms to persuade everyone from Sheryl Crow to Yoko Ono that the iTunes Music Store was the last best hope for digital music.  “Cool” is Levy at his gushiest, implying that only Apple had the foresight to dream up this wonderful device and an Internet store to feed it, even as the vast majority of music is today stolen online.  This is a situation with no clear solution, but Levy fails to point out business models like Rhapsody, which might provide better legal download solutions.

The phenomenon of “Podcast” provides the book’s best moments.  Sometimes whimsical broadcasts, distributed as MP3 files, have caused what Jobs rightfully would refer to as a “tectonic shift” in both radio and television.  Apple legitimized the technology less than a year after it was introduced by incorporating it into the iTunes Music Store, and when it began offering commercial-free network television shows a few months later, turned episodes of “Desperate Housewives” into podcasts.

“The Perfect Thing” offers a mix of myth and history with unbound enthusiasm, in a well-written paean to a little Lucite box that’s arguably the most important technology of the 21st Century.

At least that’s how Steve Jobs would describe it.