New iTunes Pricing and DRM Removal Questions

16 Comments

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.”

16 Comments

Dan

What’s actually kind of funny is that pirates haven’t quite figured it out yet. Pirates often rip movies from DVDs by taking MPEG-2 / AC3 content and ripping it into the DivX clone of the non-standard, proprietary V3 video codec and then dumping it into the archaic AVI format.

However, torrents would be a lot smaller, and easier to share, if the pirates just ripped directly into multichannel AAC.

After all, you can now decode AC3 into multichannel AAC (via Handbrake). That’s all they’d need to do! AAC provides much better compression so by using AAC, torrents would be faster and easier to rip, upload, and download…and it would be easier to store more of them on your computer because they take up less space!

Dan

AAC was originally called MPEG-2 AAC, which is probably why it wasn’t originally called MP4 from the get go.

For instance, here’s what Dolby.com has to say about AAC:

AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) is a perceptual coding method used to compress digital audio files for efficient storage and transmission. Upon playback, the expanded files can provide sound quality nearly indistinguishable from the original sources. In principle, AAC is similar to MP3, but offers a number of advantages designed to improve audio quality. These include higher-efficiency compression, more channels, and better handling of audio frequencies above 16 kHz. The improved efficiency of AAC files makes AAC a particularly good choice for streaming audio over the Internet.
AAC, developed in part by Dolby Laboratories, is one of several audio coding systems defined by ISO MPEG standards, where it was first specified as MPEG-2 AAC, and then enhanced and extended within MPEG-4. Apple’s popular iTunes® music service employs the AAC format.

Dave Lee

Also because the majority of the public see ‘MP3 Player’ and think oh i MUST Need MP3, anyone with a bit of tech mind would know different.

Quix

“Feel free to rip the same song at 256K MP3 and 256K AAC and you’ll see different files sizes.”

Indeed, you are correct. I ripped “Human” from the Killers at 256 kbps CBR in both AAC and MP3. The MP3 file is 7.5 MB. The AAC file is 5.7 MB. That’s a very significant difference.

What’s odd about AAC is that Apple are the only company to really jump on the format, despite its obvious advantages (and the length of time it’s been on the market now). Why wouldn’t Amazon/Walmart/etc. have standardized on AAC as well?

It appears the naming choice (Advanced Audio Coding (AAC)) was a tremendous marketing blunder by the founders.

Dan

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.”

Tom Reestman

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).

Quix

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*.

Quix

“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.

Nicholas Joerger

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

Tom Reestman

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.

Nick

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.

Allister

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.

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