DRM-Free Music: What Are The Labels Really Up To?


Much has been made lately of the recent news that Warner began selling DRM-free music via Amazon. There was even talk about how three of the big four labels are now offering DRM-free music, so all that was needed was for Sony to get into line.Well, now there’s a story from BusinessWeek that Sony is negotiating DRM-free music sales as well.There’s a certain amount of rejoicing over this, but I’m still unimpressed.

Why am I not thrilled? Well, can you reasonably expect to buy DRM-free music from these labels at most places digital downloads are sold? No. Can you even expect DRM-free music from these labels at the major stores where digital downloads are sold? No.Consider this:

  • The BW story says Sony will make “at least a part” of its catalog available. In other words, we’re throwing you some bones, but don’t think we’re against DRM to the point where we abandon it altogether.
  • Sony’s music will be available online only from (surprise!) Amazon.com. No iTunes. Is it a coincidence that Universal, Warner, and perhaps Sony won’t sell on iTunes (you know, the word’s most popular download music store)? How could anyone believe that? I wouldn’t believe it for a minute. It’d be borderline collusion from the three largest labels.
  • Universal, as far as I know, is also only allowing part of it catalog to be DRM-free. That was the case initially, and I’ve seen no announcement that they’ve opened up everything.
  • Of the big four labels, only the smallest (EMI) made their DRM-free music available through iTunes. The other labels music on iTunes is still with DRM, while they peddle their DRM-free wares elsewhere.

So why only part of the Universal and Sony catalogs? And why not iTunes? It’s clear DRM-free is little more right now than the carrot on the stick the labels are offering consumers. It’s the shiny object they distract you with. But they have something else up their sleeve they’re not divulging.I certainly don’t mind people snapping up the DRM-free music wherever its available if they want to, but I do mind that not enough people are questioning the true motives of the labels here. This is not “seeing the light” or “embracing” the new order of DRM-free tunes. This is a carefully crafted attack by the labels on iTunes, pricing and, yes, keeping DRM alive in some cases.When the Warner deal was announced I wrote the following, and now I can add Sony:

If the music is truly without restriction, why do Universal and Warner care where you get it? It’d by like taking their CDs (also DRM-free) and selling them at Best Buy and Target but not Wal-Mart! It would be insanity to not sell your DRM-free CDs through the largest retailer, and yet when it comes to digital music this is just what Universal and Warner are doing.

When the labels open up their entire catalogs DRM-free, and when they sell on iTunes (and other sites, for that matter), then I’ll believe they’ve finally gotten the hint and given up on all the stupid schemes and plans they’ve held for the last eight years. We’re not there yet, and until then I think they still need to be watched.[UPDATE:] Updated article based on confirmation that Amazon will be the only online store used for Sony DRM-free music.

10 thoughts on “DRM-Free Music: What Are The Labels Really Up To?

  1. Pingback: Wal-Mart sticks to its guns (no, not those guns) | Monkeyclaus

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  3. Why oh Why??? 🙂

    But Apple reports that iTunes the store does not make much money. They barely break even. iTunes is just there to be a digital jutebox and … oh yess you can buy songs there, songs that can easily be converted to mp3 should you desire. So all songs are DRM free, if you desire. 🙂

    The music companies just do not get it. period.

    Oh well, soon we may see iTunes becoming a new record label (now that Apple owns the Apple Core name), one never knows. 🙂


  4. …And, if by some chance the ITMS continues to be successful, the labels will use this as a reason to pull the non DRM tracks saying that’s what the public want really, plus a price hike of course.
    Still – filesharing sites dwarf all the legal stuff so their efforts are all for nowt in the long run. Then we’ll see the if the shareholders get some guts and fire the management.
    I don’t think it’s a great earner anyway for Apple b ut I could be wrong about the numbers.

  5. Brett,

    Your theory basically agrees with something I had said a few months ago in this article:

    “In my opinion this is just a push for Amazon to get customers while the labels hope to break iTunes’ grip on the digital music world. If the store gets popular, expect the labels to raise prices and, unlike Apple, expect Amazon to have little issue with this. The labels might also rollout more tracks, but with DRM. We know Amazon’s video site is in bed with content providers (most recently NBC); they clearly have no issue with DRM. I think if Amazon were seen as a threat to balk at any of this they wouldn’t be getting this preferential treatment to begin with.”

  6. Here is my theory:

    By refusing to sell DRM-free music through the iTunes Music store, they are hoping to weaken Apple’s lock on music retailing. Assuming this strategy is successful, once iTunes music store’s market-share slips enough, they will pull their music out of iTMS completely. Then you will see the other online stores agree to institute the flexible pricing (high prices for newer hit songs) that the record companies desire, and that Steve jobs has resisted thus far. Ultimately Apple will have to agree to institute flexible pricing if they want to regain the rights to sell that music.

    It will be interesting to see if consumers will accept higher prices. I think 99 cents is already too much to pay for a compressed music track that has no collectable or resale value, but then I may be atypical.

  7. sorry Jeff, iTunes will happily import and convert unprotected WMA files.

  8. To see if any of the record companies really have balls, watch for those that release non-DRM WMA files – ie, non-protected music that can’t be played on an iPod.

    Until they stop using MP3, they aren’t hurting Apples *hardware* sales which is where the real bucks are…

  9. I don’t think it’s illegal for them to not sell their wares through iTunes, I just think it’s stupid, and cuts into their own profits. Their shareholders shouldn’t like it, but I’m not sure there’s any legal recourse for Apple (unless collusion is proven, and without EMI even that may be difficult).

    It’s unknown what Sony will do (the article suggested they’d sell through Amazon, but that’s not known, so I updated my post), but it’s clear by making only a part of their catalog available they have not had the change of heart EMI did.

    I think the big three are all still in denial, and still think they can pull something off and save themselves if they just keep trying anything other than what’s obvious: Open up their catalogs DRM-free, and make them available anywhere one could reasonably expect.

  10. I hope Apple quotes this post if, and when, they ever decide to sue the pants off of these criminals, as your post express’s their crime rather well! It is obvious they are working to together to undermine Apple’s iTune’s and they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it!

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