Zune MarketplaceThe writing’s on the wall: DRM for music downloads is deader than the eight track. Okay, actually, that’s not fair: the eight track was relatively good technology.

Just two weeks after Amazon launched their own DRM-free music store, Microsoft is jumping on the bandwagon. DRM won’t be gone completely from the Zune store, but there will be hundreds of thousands of DRM-free tracks going live, apparently in November with the release of a new store and new players. That’s a major departure, given that Microsoft built its Zune and PlaysForSure platforms around DRM, and introduced significant new DRM features in Vista. Normally, I don’t like to quote press releases, but I’ll give my friends at the Digital Freedom Campaign a chance for some deserved gloating:

“The industry standard has shifted in the past six months and the tide has turned in favor of consumers,” Maura Corbett, a spokesperson for the Digital Freedom Campaign said. “The number of digital music retailers offering DRM-free music will soon out number those that do not, and consumers will soon live in a world where they can listen to legally purchased music when, how, and where they want. We congratulate Microsoft for joining the growing number of retailers and labels that have realized the best way to increase the sales of digital music, is to listen to their customers.”

Actually, I’ll argue one point. The number of digital music retailers offering DRM-free music already outnumbers those that don’t. There’s iTunes (via Universal and iTunes Plus), eMusic, Wal-Mart (though with IE Windows-only downloads, for no very good reason), Amazon (which even has a Mac downloader and automatic iTunes integration), and handfuls of downloads on all the major music websites and services.

And then there are the “indie”/niche music stores: Other Music, Beatport, Dance Tracks Digital, Bleep, yoosic, finetunes, 3 beat digital, Thrill music, etc., etc. (See a whole bunch of other examples in Where Do You Get Your DRM-Free Music?)

Also this week: Radiohead dumped their label, announced they’d self-release as a DRM-free download, and let people pay what they want. I’ve been meaning to write that up — thanks for everyone who wrote in — but am sort of rendered speechless by the sensation of the online music world finally turning into what it should have been at the beginning. Clearly, Radiohead’s path works for them and may not work for everyone — if anything, this emphasizes the real significance of labels for promotion, and not so much for the broken distribution model that ultimately punished so many artists in the past. But the trend is early toward heterogeneous music sources, and choices for artists to do what makes sense for them.

Ultimately, this trend should be fantastic for diversity of music and stores alike. Just because big stores like iTunes and the Zune store are going DRM-free doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll crush smaller stores. On the contrary, the pressure is now on labels to embrace digital distribution and DRM-free downloads, which could be a real boon to smaller stores building their catalogs.

Meanwhile, video DRM is very much alive, unfortunately; TV, for instance, seems to actually be trending toward more DRM. But that’s another story, and maybe music will eventually lead video in the same direction once the video business model is more secure. (Why is it we can’t watch streaming TV with ads, for instance?)

But, years after the Napster legal implosion, it seems online music is finally coming around to access and choice, with a business model to support it.

Free: Find DRM-Free Music, Make Glitchy Sounds, Built in Max
As Other Music, Others Embrace Downloads, is Big, DRM-Laden Online Music Out? (Okay, answer = yes.)
Where Do You Get Your DRM-Free Music?

  • dead_red_eyes

    "Music DRM Now Completely Dead"

    It will be once iTunes gets their shit together!

  • Hey, I never said Apple (likely because of their labels) wasn't beating a dead horse!

  • bliss

    Seems like the new DRM-free model has more to do with the record industry's hatred of Apple than it does with customers. As long as there was DRM music being sold by Microsoft/Zune what difference did it make if customers bought from MS or Apple? Nothing. Might as well stick with the iTunes paradigm since it's already well situated in the market, and plus there's the added benefit of iPod chic to help gloss everything over in an appealing way.

    Now this latest move by the industry really smells to me like they are trying to get competition going on a major scale so that it can maneuver itself back into a position to dictate terms that Apple will have to listen to. That's my take, anyway.

  • So wait iTunes DRM is not dead then? Because this post got my hopes waaay up. Do you think it will last much longer?

  • I don't think iTunes DRM will last much longer, no. I think we'll gradually see labels move off the DRMed content to DRM-free, in order to compete. That may take time, though; labels tend to move slowly, and this is a lot of digital assets sitting around, plus the whole process of relicensing the content.

    bliss, I agree that labels are using this as leverage against Apple. I don't know that Microsoft is necessarily doing that; they're likely most interested in selling more boxes.

    I guess what I question on some level is Apple's own commitment to making this happen. They've talked a lot about it, and yet other players are moving faster than they are, for whatever reason (who knows what's going on in negotiations). Whatever the reason, I think the ball is now in Apple's court to deliver.

  • dead_red_eyes

    I for one would love to see my album DRM free on iTunes, but I just don't see that happening for a while Peter. Also, it's not only the labels fault for DRM, I think that Digital Distributors have a hand in it as well. I could mention some indie labels here that HATE DRM … but their online distributor either doesn't care or whatever so their products end up getting the DRM treatment on iTunes. Sure the label could try and shop for another digital distributor … but I would say that there's not too many companies out there that are REALLY listening to their labels/clients arguements about DRM.

  • dead_red_eyes

    Also :

    Money Money Money Money … MONEY!

  • Ahh, Microsoft. Always the follower, never the leader.

    Also, does anyone actually use the Zune online store?

  • Adrian Anders

    Yea, I REALLY want all of the indie and obscure music on iTunes to go plus as there is alot of stuff on there that just isn't in print on CD anymore (or at least at a reasonable price). Great, EMI & Universal went DRM-free… but what about the small guys? That's what I really want to be DRM-free, low-cost, and at a decent quality.

  • There's one way for Microsoft to lead:

    Be the anti-Apple. Release a Zune SDK.

    Oh, and one other answer on the following/leading: Xbox 360.

    But yeah, everything else here is old news: iPod form factors and price points, DRM-free music, social networking (we still don't know what that will look like on Zune), etc. One giant leap for Zune, one small step for music player kind.

    I think there is still a chance for Zune to *really* innovate, but it's not doing it yet.

  • gwenhwyfaer

    "…trend ic early toward heterogenous…"

    Should that have been "trend is clearly toward"…?

  • I want to see a way to get your own music into these online stores DRM free next. I use TuneCore to get my stuff online, but it puts me in the standard DRM library, not the DRM free library.

    Oh, and I watch streaming TV with commercials all the time. That's how I get my television news. I don't own a tv. I just use my computer for DVDs and CNN.com, MSNBC.com, and NBC.com for my news and entertainment.

  • dead_red_eyes

    Yeah that's one thing I was saying Oh Travioso, is that labels aren't the only ones responsible for the DRM push … most Digital Distributors are to blame as well.

    Adrian Anders, I too look forward to the day when ALL indie releases are DRM-free.

  • Mike

    Everywhere I've read so far on blogs, people are really excited for the new Zune models. They have interesting new features that ipod doesn't have like wireless syncing and I don't think you mention that the DRM-Free music will be MP3. Apple had to choose their AAC format, so the users have a limited choice of players. I agree that the industry is moving away from itunes hold on sales and we're starting to see some big changes. I'll be curious to hear how much sales Amazon.com is pulling away from the mighty itunes…

  • a.m. gold

    Amazon's implementation of non-DRM mp3 sales seems potentially category-killing to me: it works great, it's already hooked up to your credit card, the files are fairly hi-res (256 kps), you can buy full albums or ala carte. Much prefer this to the idea of any subscription model or the iTunes store with its incompatible, low-res files and "authorization" of your machine.

  • dead_red_eyes

    Wow, Amazon is selling their mp3s at 256kbps and DRM-free … that's really nice! 320kbps is about as lossless as you're going to get with an mp3 … but 256 isn't that bad at all.

  • bliss

    Hmm, I wonder what Apple is up to… You know they're up to something.

  • dead_red_eyes

    It looks like every album on there is $.89 a song, which is GREAT. Doesn't Apple charge something like $1.29 a DRM-free song? Yikes.

  • Enough of digital music, go get a record player and some records at the thrift store or vintage book store. 🙂

  • Kat Ryan

    Apple charges $1.29 for their iTunes Plus catalog which they like to call "true CD quality." It is non-DRM, but actually,for the same price you can get 7 times better sound quality from MusicGiants – and yes, they have a large selection of non-DRM music as well. Why not buy the best the first time and then you don't have to keep paying everytime Apple improves its sound quality?

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