16 Comments

Summary:

Like many users, I’m pleased that the labels are finally allowing Apple to sell music free of DRM copy protection. Given that the labels have allowed this for many other vendors (Amazon, Wal-Mart, Zune Store, etc.) I think they’ve been flirting with collusion on the iTunes […]

Like many users, I’m pleased that the labels are finally allowing Apple to sell music free of DRM copy protection. Given that the labels have allowed this for many other vendors (Amazon, Wal-Mart, Zune Store, etc.) I think they’ve been flirting with collusion on the iTunes store for a while anyway. 

What I’m happiest about is the higher quality — which I don’t think Apple would have needed permission for  — since Apple’s FairPlay DRM was pretty transparent anyway. Of my nearly 8,000 songs, about 200 of them are iTunes, most belonging to my daughter. The DRM has simply never been an issue since they play on every Mac and iPod device we have. I’m not even sure I’ll upgrade them, but a lot of that has to do with price, as we’ll see.

What I’m most curious about are the details and consequences of this deal as it pertains not just to Apple, but also the competion. Here are some questions I have…

Why only eight million tracks now? 

Apple has 10 million tracks on their store. Yet only eight million of them are DRM-free now. The rest are slated as being DRM-free by the end of March. It seems likely the yearly Apple contract with the labels renews on April 1, hence the significance of the date. Still, why aren’t all tracks waiting for the end of March, instead of just 20 percent of them? Could it be the labels are being generous and letting some of their wares go DRM-free early? Um, no. Sorry, but I’ve seen no generosity from the labels (or RIAA) in the digital age; I assume the answer lies elsewhere and ties into the next question…

The new prices don’t kick in until April 1. Why?

As mentioned above, if the Apple contract renews on April 1 that would explain why the new prices do not take place until then, but then why are so many tracks DRM-free now? I can’t help but wonder if the 80 percent of available DRM-free tracks today are those primarily slated at selling for $.99 or $.69, whereas the 20 percent waiting for the end of March are mostly slated for the higher price of $1.29. In other words, the labels may have no problem with you possibly buying a DRM-free track now for 30 cents more than you’ll pay in April, but they don’t want to sell many for 30 cents less

What about the competition?

As it is, the Amazon store sometimes undercuts iTunes by selling tracks for $.89. Will this still be allowed by the labels when the new Apple prices kick in? I mean, a dime differential is not that big a deal, but 40 cents is significant and a big disadvantage. Seems like Apple would have a case there for some kind of unfair competition. Same is true for Wal-Mart, etc. I do not know when the other stores’ latest contracts with the labels expire, but if they do not also have to honor a higher price when the contracts are renewed, something seems wrong there. Of course, these stores would get to use the lower price tier as well. 

Oh, and what’s with this AAC encoding?

Some of the comments I read yesterday about AAC encoding made me alternate between laughing and weeping for all of humanity. People, AAC is in reality MP4, and the successor to MP3. It’s better, with superior sound and smaller file sizes. Yet the Apple bashers would have you think it’ll only play on about three players. There is no self-respecting player today that does not support AAC, and it’s been supported on many devices (including Zunes and many smartphones) for years. Besides, if you feel you must have the inferior quality and larger size of an MP3 file, iTunes will gladly convert them for you.

What’s with the “Upgrade my Library” option, especially the price?

Right now, I’ve verified that most of the 200+ DRM tunes I have are now DRM-free. Yet iTunes so far has only identified 44 songs. Not exactly sure what’s taking it so long, and wonder if it’s not quite working properly. I’ll keep an eye on it and see how it grows. More importantly than the identification, I’m curious about the price. It’s straightforward right now. For a single song it’s $.30, and for an album it’s 30 percent of the current album price. But won’t that need to change in April? It sure as heck ought to. I think a lot of my tracks are going to be $.69 come April 1, do the labels really expect me to pay $.30 on top of the $.99 I’ve already shelled out for these? That would be ugly; upgrading should be minimal there. In any case I have no intention of updating any tracks until April and see if the price for upgrading changes based on the new tiered structure. 

Oh, and why can’t I just upgrade some of my music? 

I can click one button to upgrade all the tunes identified, but there’s no way to just upgrade individual songs or albums. Really? All or nothing? That’s beyond ridiculous. 

Conclusion

It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens on April 1, but also to see how the other online stores adjust their pricing — of if they do not need to. 

Meanwhile, the best thing about the DRM-free music is that the Apple bashers will have to look elsewhere (some of them have latched on to AAC) to claim being “locked” into Apple’s music “monopoly.”

  1. Makes me glad I never bought more than a handful of tracks with DRM.

  2. I second Galley’s comment. I’ve got a few dozen and it has so far offered to upgrade three. So I did.

    And hooray for your rant about AAC-doomsayers. Take a look on Wikipedia at the AAC page – there’s a list of hardware & software that supports this TEN YEAR OLD standard. Damned near everything worth owning.

  3. I haven’t purchased much from Itunes, but can’t you just burn a CD of DRM files and then rip it back to itunes as mp3s to upgrade to drm-free yourself?

    There are definitely players that don’t play AAC, but play OGG, which is also smaller and better sounding than mp3s. Nothing against AAC, but for many people with slightly older players they haven’t worked.

  4. Nick,

    Yes, you can burn protected DRM files to an Audio CD and re-rip them as DRM-free MP3s (since burning to Audio removes the DRM). But with Apple’s DRM-free tracks you don’t even have to burn them first; you can “convert” them to MP3 directly in iTunes.

    However, it makes ZERO sense to do this if your device supports AAC, and chances are it does. See the link below for a partial list of supported devices:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Audio_Coding#Hardware

    I think people get the impression that AAC support is rare. It’s not.

  5. Nicholas Joerger Wednesday, January 7, 2009

    I dont know if this is place to post this but

    I have A LOT OF MUSIC and its not DRM and its over the amount Tom has (sorry dont feel like sharing that info with the world)

    should i convert to acc to save room or stay in ogg, flac, mp3, mp4, wav, etc?
    curious

  6. “I think a lot of my tracks are going to be $.69 come April 1″

    Oh Tom, Tom, Tom…you realize which tracks are going to be $.69 don’t you? The obscure, worthless songs that no one will ever buy. Crap songs you’ve never heard of from artists you’ve never heard of.

    All the good stuff will start at $.99, just like now, with the songs you *really* want sitting comfortably at $1.29.

    You’d think we’d all understand how record label weasels operate by now…

    Variable pricing, puh-lease. Anyone who thinks this is a consumer-friendly gesture is frighteningly naive.

  7. Oh, and I don’t believe AAC has “smaller file sizes” – isn’t the bitrate the literal amount of data contained in a file? So the same 5 minute song in 256 MP3 and 256 AAC should be the same file size, no?

    I think the argument should be that AAC sounds as good as MP3 at a *lower bitrate*, making for a smaller file size. But since we’re assumedly comparing iTunes Plus (256 kbps) AAC to Amazon MP3 (256 kbps), the file sizes should be similar if not identical. But the iTunes Plus song should sound *better*.

  8. Quix,

    “isn’t the bitrate the literal amount of data contained in a file?”

    Not at all. Feel free to rip the same song at 256K MP3 and 256K AAC and you’ll see different files sizes. AAC files are smaller at the same sample rate (and sound better).

  9. John Gruber has an excellent piece on AAC for those who are misinformed.

    Well worth the read.

    http://daringfireball.net/2007/04/some_facts_about_aac

  10. BTW…Gruber also points out in a follow-up post

    “…The confusion over whether AAC is an “Apple format” is in some measure a byproduct of the format’s acronym, and that many people assume that one of the A’s in “AAC” stands for “Apple”. (It stands for “Advanced Audio Coding”.) If it were called, say, “MP4” instead, it might be more clear that it’s the successor to MP3.”

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