DRM Is Dead

Nevermind-1 Call me a freak, but I’ve never actually heard the music of Nirvana, except for “Teen Spirit,” which is popular enough to be unavoidable, and the Unplugged album, which I bought because it had covers of two Meat Puppets tracks. OK, so now I’m listening to Nevermind for the first time (having a bit of trouble figuring out why Cobain is so famous – most of it sounds as lame now as the rest of grunge did in the summer of ’91).

Amazon just opened up their MP3 music store, and it’s huge – not just in size, but in what it means for DRM’d music. 2.3 million songs for starters, all in standard MP3 format in excellent fidelity (256kbps), and all DRM-free. iTunes charges extra for the privilege of getting hi-fi tracks without DRM; with Amazon it’s the default.

iTunes has historically had clear advantages over web-based music stores from a UI/performance/integration perspective, but Amazon has worked hard to make the problems of doing all of this without a dedicated/integrated app go away. I’ve been begging eMusic to add an inline music player for years now, but nothing has changed. Amazon gets it right on the first try.

Amazon does require a helper app if you want to download whole albums though (which is the only way I buy). The helper app is available for Windows and Mac right out of the gate; Linux version coming soon. I found the Mac version buggy – it promised to transfer tracks directly into iTunes, but didn’t. And the preferences panel refused to open until I relaunched the app. I’m seriously considering dropping the eMusic subscription I’ve kept up for years. Will have to study more to see how their catalogs compare.

The eMusic subscription model is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s a killer deal. But like Netflix, it’s only a deal if you actually use it. So every month I dutifully surf through my saved items and grab my 60 tracks, even if I’m too busy to digest them properly. The upside is that it’s sort of a commitment to expose myself to something new every month. Amazon’s pay-as-you-go model makes more sense financially for occasional buyers, but without the subscription goading me to discovery, I can imagine myself buying – and discovering – less music. You have to be more pro-active to keep new tracks flowing.

The critical missing piece at Amazon is the lack of informational context. iTunes includes reviews and metadata from the All Music Guide, and eMusic hires actual music writers to generate tons of interesting/useful summary info and magazine-style essays. Amazon relies entirely on customer reviews. If there are none, you’re on your own. Not a terrible thing, but I do like to learn a bit about the artist before diving in. [Correction: Amazon does include contextual information for some artists, but not for albums (that I can see).

Hrm… their Captain Beefheart section includes two albums I’ve never heard or heard of, while their Meat Puppets selection includes almost nothing (and none of the good stuff). Give ’em a break – it’s a fresh service. But you’d think it wouldn’t be hard to get SST on board.

Anyway – the important thing is the precedent this establishes. If Amazon can do DRM-free, non-proprietary digital distribution deals with these major labels, it’s the final nail in the coffin. DRM is over (for music anyway). Tears shed by no one.

Music: Nirvana :: On A Plain

Spectacular Failure

News that the HD-DVD encryption algorithm has been cracked and published all over tarnation is a two-pronged story.

First, that the AACS’ vigilance in preventing HD-DVDs from being copied and openly traded is on its way towards spectacular defeat even while the technology is still in its infancy, battling with Blu-Ray for supremacy.

Second, that this has occurred in the era of Web 2.0 and user-generated content. Digg.com’s battle to prevent users from posting stories containing the algorithm was also a spectacular failure.

Digg’s attempt to weed out posts containing the algorithm turned into an endless game of Whack-A-Mole, despite the fact that Digg faced legal action from the AACS if they didn’t get the stories removed – action that could get Digg shut down. But Digg users (or at least a subset of them) apparently cared more about getting the algorithm widely published than they did about Digg getting nailed. Eventually, Digg creators threw up their hands.

“You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be,” [Digg’s Kevin] Rose wrote … If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.

Looks like Google and WordPress.com may also be busting similar takedown moves.

When you bake user-generated content features into your site, you stand the risk of users posting content that could be threatening to your very existence. So which way do you go? Allow the public to speak through the megaphone you built just for them? Or protect yourself? I think this could set a very bad precedent for traditional publications just now warming to the power of UGC.

Music: Lou Reed and John Cale :: Nobody But You

Good News

What’s going on? Two chunks of good news for humans in one day?

– The Supremes ruled 5/4 that, gee, the EPA does have a legal right to regulate C02 emissions after all. This all dates back to 1970, when the EPA got away with murder — on the technicality that carbon dioxide was not technically a pollutant. It may help melt glaciers and snuff out polar bears, but hey, it’s just a common gas, none of the EPA’s bidnis. No longer.

– Non-DRM music from the EMI catalog will soon become available through iTunes. Not only will it be unprotected and playable on non-Apple hardware, it’ll be available as 256kbps AAC – far higher fidelity digital music than is currently commercially available. Apple wouldn’t be upping the bitrate if consumers weren’t demanding it; it’s heartening to know that users can tell the difference.

And there was much rejoicing, less gnashing of teeth.

Music: Pere Ubu :: Navvy