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Tuesday Tidbits: Audio and DRM

The past few days have brought a couple of interesting data points on the world of downloadable audio.

First, after a successful trial on the eMusic download store, book publisher Random House will no longer require "digital rights management" (DRM) copy-prevention software on its audiobook downloads. The news first surfaced on the Boing Boing blog last Thursday. Although this announcement has yet to show up on Random House's home page, eMusic publicist Nicole Laster confirmed it in an e-mail yesterday.

The interesting part is the experiment that Random House conducted before making this decision, explained in a letter from senior vice president Madeline McIntosh that's been posted at numerous sites (The TeleRead blog, for example, has a PDF copy up). The company began selling audiobooks as DRM-free MP3 files at eMusic, but added inaudible watermarks to these files that would allow them to be identified when they showed up on file-sharing services later on. Except, according to the Random House document,

"...we have not yet found a single instance of the eMusic watermarked titles being distributed illegally. We did find many copies of audiobook files available for free, but they did not originate from the eMusic test, but rather from copied CDs or from files whose copy-restricted file was hacked.

Second, earlier today Apple announced that its iTunes Store is now the second-biggest music retailer in the U.S., trailing only Wal-Mart.

And yet iTunes is one of the last refuges of DRM in paid music downloads. Even as all of the major record labels have made their work available on Amazon's MP3 store without any copying restrictions, most of them still insist on DRM at iTunes.

I would like to think that buyers would have shifted their business to Amazon as a result. That may play into the hands of these labels--they don't like Apple dominating the download market--but it's also the economically sound decision if you value the higher quality and freedom offered by Appe's no-DRM iTunes Plus downloads.

Remember, iTunes Plus downloads cost the same as the copy-restricted kind, but converting a regular iTunes download to Plus later on will cost you 30 cents a song. So why would you spend another dime on DRM downloads that you'll want to upgrade later on? You're better off waiting out these big labels and reserving your iTunes purchases for music from EMI and the independent labels who already support iTunes Plus.

That's exactly what I'm doing. But I'm starting to feel a little lonely in that view. Have you adjusted your music shopping habits because of these DRM developments, or does this issue just not bug you that much?

(Note: I've updated this to correct a misidentification of Laster, who works for eMusic and not Random House.)

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 26, 2008; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , Music  
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Honestly, it doesn't bother me all that much. Most of my music is mp3 anyway. The stuff I've downloaded from iTunes? Cheaper than buying CDs and spending $15 to get one good song and 9 bad ones.

As far as iTunes Plus goes? I listen to my iPod (via a cable into the stereo) in my car. Audio quality is not much of an issue there, especially if I have the windows down.

Posted by: wiredog | February 26, 2008 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I do almost all of my download music shopping at Amazon now. I'm not enough of an audiophile that any difference in quality between iTunes Plus and Amazon makes matters to me.

Posted by: Jerry | February 26, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I guess I'm a dinosaur in that if .
My purchases fall into three categories.

1. - the subscription has been great and there is an endless supply of good music to check out

2. buying the CD - if I know I'm going to like it, I go ahead and buy the physical CD. Also, if it isn't available at emusic and I might like it, I'll go ahead and buy the CD. Worst case scenario is I don't like it and I sell it at The difference in price between downloading at $1/track and buying the CD is negligible. Since you can't sell a digital download, I'd rather own the physical CD. Even if I lose money on the exchange, it is like a DVD rental.

3. itunes is exclusively for exclusives or CDs that I know I don't want more than a couple of the songs (such as greatest hits CDs with one or two new tracks). I haven't tried the Amazon store, but I'm sure I'll check there first now.

Posted by: slar | February 26, 2008 2:04 PM | Report abuse that if the prices are similar, I would prefer to own the physical CD.

While I'm at it, does anyone know how many audiobooks emusic is actually selling? The price seems pretty steep. Maybe it is because I have zero interest in audiobooks...

Posted by: slar | February 26, 2008 2:15 PM | Report abuse

The Amazon mp3 site is very user friendly and have great deals with no DRM. Looks like they continue to increase their selection. For some current and popular songs, it's .89 cents. Most mp3 are .99 like the rest and you get some deals on buying the entire album. I like using the Amazon site compared to Walmart, Best Buy Rhapsody, or ITunes.

Posted by: Amazon user | February 26, 2008 2:45 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with the above commenter - I find the iTunes interface much better for random browsing and searching than the Amazon interface. I'll often find something I want to buy on iTunes, then check Amazon to see whether it's available there. I prefer the DRM-free files, but the user interface is lacking for me.

Posted by: Lindemann | February 26, 2008 3:09 PM | Report abuse

I use the Amazon site when I think about it, but I've caught myself using Itunes out of habit. Like when the program's already open and I want to grab just one song real quick. It's irrational, but that's how I roll. I went to a state university.

Posted by: Ronnie | February 26, 2008 3:33 PM | Report abuse

I used to convert my iTunes purchases to MP3s so they could play on an old iRiver player I had. Now my purchases are 100% Amazon.

Posted by: Dylan | February 26, 2008 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Amazon has the latest & most diverse download store, and doesn't clutter up my computer with useless DRM tracks that I can't burn to discs or non-Apple players.

eMusic's monthly or annual subscription rates are a better value though. The non-major label catalog likely leads users to new discoveries, and tracks cost less than half of the iTunes or Amazon price, in my case they average 25 cents.

Steve Jobs, for some reason, wears a turtle neck, on purpose...every time he appears in public. What's the correlation with that and his lousy iTunes store?

Using iTunes and it's odd forced interface, is akin to wearing a turtleneck everytime I want to download music...

I want options...

Posted by: Lil Mike SF | February 26, 2008 6:30 PM | Report abuse

The statement that Apple DRM plus is better quality is not true. Amazon download quality averages 256 kbs for each download, and it is inherently DRM free. For now, Amazon makes more sense. But I am a bit of a fuddy duddy; I prefer vinyl.

Posted by: Adam | February 26, 2008 6:30 PM | Report abuse

I was never a heavy iTunes Store buyer, but I've started shifting my purchasing to Amazon. I've found the prices and selection to be essentially the same from bouth outlets, and the ability to get my music DRM-free swings the decision in favor of Amazon. Plus, although I don't currently plan to switch to a non-iPod mp3 player, I like knowing that I'd be able to take my Amazon purchases to the new player.

Posted by: NathanIrwin | February 26, 2008 6:59 PM | Report abuse is the best legal source of music, offering customers the choice of either CDs or DRM-free MP3s.

I prefer CDs, because of their superior sound quality.

Posted by: JohnJ | February 26, 2008 11:46 PM | Report abuse

50 million customers & a 6 million song catalog, ITS must be doing something right. i've ripped my CD collection to an iMac to have all my music @ the touch of the Apple remote on my home audio system & on my 3G iPod Nano. i've bought mostly shorts, & have a couple of concerts recorded off cable converted for iPod in iMovie to have something to watch on it. i've only bought 3 musical selections(just to get the album artwork for my collection)-the 3 are straight ahead classic jazz pieces not available @ Best-Buy or Wal-Mart. since i encode in AIFF @ 16/44.1 my tracks sound pretty good. and since i don't really do credit cards-have 1 for emergencies & major purchases, i can get an ITS gift card in $15-$50 amount @ my local drug/grocery/dollar/discount/gas store to buy some music & now buy or rent movies. not to mention the ton of free content @ ITS in podcasts & iTunes U, so i get much more than just music downloads @ ITS. & in order not to lose my music purchases in case of HDD failure i burn them to CD.

p.s. i even found the album art work for a CD from a band i was in(playing Bass) several years ago, as well as some other local indies-now that was pretty cool!

Posted by: dkjones | February 27, 2008 7:59 AM | Report abuse

I'm still on iTunes but I also won't download anything with DRM anymore. I only buy the DRM-free artists and albums--if it has DRM on iTunes, that's enough to send me to the filesharing networks. I'm also starting to re-download my previous purchases as MP3's--I can't upgrade any of them to iTunes Plus.

Posted by: BR | February 27, 2008 9:35 AM | Report abuse

I go back and forth actually. Historically I have A LOT of music purchases from the CD days from amazon, so the recommendations there are far superior to the recommendations I get get from ITMS. This is great when an album is released that wasn't on my radar. When it comes to browsing random music ITMS is superious. At checkout time, I buy from Itunes Plus first, Amazon mp3 second, Itunes DRM third, Amazon CD last. There are still quite a few releases that I can't find on one site or the other.

Posted by: Leesburger | February 27, 2008 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I've been a long and loyal iTunes supporter since it first materialized, but I now go to Amazon (where I've been a long and loyal customer since they began) first to see if a song is available there. If not, I go to iTunes, where I can usually find it. When I download from Amazon, they automatically show up in my iTunes anyway. I still love the iTunes interface and I know they will soon be dropping DRM there as well. They won't have a choice.

Posted by: Jeff | February 27, 2008 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Tarik- thanks for the updates and Q&A!

Posted by: Hatrk23 | February 27, 2008 5:10 PM | Report abuse

I still use Itunes. For me it is all about the user interface. Itunes is simple, elegant, and consistently easy to use. Plus - burning music to a CD is not that hard and the DRM just doesn't get in the way.

I used to like Amazon. But over time -- they have turned into the online Walmart (big, messy, and ghetto in the worst way). Their selection is huge - but it is hard to predict whether what you want will ship on time (or even be in stock).

Posted by: JD | February 27, 2008 5:51 PM | Report abuse

I dislike having the iTunes updated about every week or two so I have uninstalled it entirely and have gone to
I had an issue the other day which turned out to be on my PC, I had an Amazon REAL person on the phone that helped me fix it withing minutes. Service at for their MP3 service is excellent.

Posted by: Fred Dunn | February 28, 2008 8:27 AM | Report abuse

I came late to iTunes, so I'm not as loyal a customer as some. I've bought many more songs from Amazon than from iTunes. Amazon's interface isn't nearly as user friendly, unfortunately. When are they going to allow sorting options in the list of an artist's songs, for instance? I also prefer iTunes shopping cart for holding items I'm considering buying.

I had high hopes for iTunes Plus, but almost none of the music I want is available in that format, and there doesn't seem to be any movement on that front. Meanwhile, Amazon has been steadily adding more stuff since they started selling MP3s.

When it comes to an album, if the price is the same for downloads and CD at Amazon, I'll buy the CD (free shipping with Amazon Prime) and rip my own MP3s. If the price is much cheaper for downloads, I'll get the downloads. If the price is in betweeen, it depends on how much I want things like photos and credits that come with the CD.

I heartily endorse eMusic too. I could probably fill my hard drive with music from there. But there are things I want that aren't available there.

Posted by: BW | February 28, 2008 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I have been a long time iTunes user, but I have been using Amazon because of price and sound quality. The iTunes DRM has only been a hassle to me when I could not put those tracks on my daughters PSP without converting them first. But now with 4 kids and multiple computers, the 5 computer limit is getting in the way. Come on Apple. I like shopping at iTunes better,but all things being equal, Amazon is a better deal now.

Posted by: Jonser | February 29, 2008 12:59 AM | Report abuse

i use itunes, pretty much exclusively, because it's easy to use the store, the player, the playlists, everything, all in one simple UI. the DRM scheme is non-intrusive and rarely causes me any problems. and the labels are behaving like they always do, making life less convenient for their own customers by requiring the largest online retailer to retain a DRM scheme, however non-draconian, that no one else has to use.

i remember what DRM and online music shopping was like before itunes. and i know that any difficulties itunes is facing now are a direct result of the labels. so, since it's easy, convenient, feature-rich, and, for me at least, has non-intrusive DRM, i stick with itunes. amazon is fine, except i'm very suspicious: if that's where the labels want you to go, you have to ask yourself why that is. it's not to make things better for you.

apple wants to make money, and they do it by making my life easier. the labels want to make money and they do it by making my life harder. this anybody-but-itunes act of theirs is very transparent. ultimately, the studios and labels want to be retailers and dictate the rules of the game to the consumer (and if they're successful, those rules will be insanely draconian).

at a digital media conference one time i heard a speaker from one of the big studios say, "my content is mine. and all the revenue derived from that content should be mine, 100%. every penny that someone else makes off the selling or renting of my content is, in effect, stolen from me. and i want that penny." sounds like daniel day-lewis's next role, sort of, but he really did say that. and i believe that is their goal, to damage itunes enough to create an opening for themselves, whether or not the courts might rule it to be anti-competitive.

Posted by: omar | March 1, 2008 10:25 AM | Report abuse

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