It only took a decade, but record companies are taking a brief respite from suing their customers to realize that their customers want to pay for something the major record companies, by and large, refuse to sell them: un-DRM’d MP3s. We’ve reported before on Yahoo’s MP3 tests with a Jesse McCartney album and a Jessica Simpson single. Another high-profile experiment started yesterday, reported in the Wall Street Journal, as EMI division BlueNote gave Yahoo’s music store an exclusive to sell singles by chanteuse Nora Jones and Christian rockers Relient K. Blue Note GM Zach Hochkeppel went along with this experiment, the Journal asserts because Nora Jones’s audience “is thought to be less likely than teenage pop fans to be satisfied with just one song from the album and thus willing to buy the entire album even if they have gotten one song free.” As Hochkeppel puts it, “Nobody gets hurt — we think.” (Insert your own joke here about people stealing music by a Christian rock band.)
The record companies have to do something to kick-start online sales. Nielsen SoundScan reports that the sales at Apple’s iTunes store, which are locked in by DRM, are flat this year (of the significant digital music stores, only eMusic, a distant but consistent #2 behind iTunes, sells its tracks in unrestricted MP3s). And as popular as the iTunes store is, the legitimate digital-music market represents, if you believe BigChampagne’s numbers, barely 10 percent of the music being distributed right now over the Net, the vast majority of them as MP3s, the only format that all digital players can agree on. So the real challenge for the record companies is to turn those file sharers into honest customers. Giving their customers the music they want in the format they want is surely a way to entice some percentage of them from the dark side, but one moderate-profile test every few months isn’t going to change anyone’s behavior.