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DRM Ends, Variable Pricing Begins for iTunes Music

This day will be long remembered: Apple's iTunes Store no longer sells music with "digital rights management" restrictions attached.

The move, announced in January at the Macworld Expo convention, formally terminates the recording industry's dream of selling music with "DRM" that would prevent all unauthorized uses.


I've been looking forward to this moment for a long time. A round of thanks are appropriate: to Apple for being the first mass-market computer firm to debunk DRM's utility in public; to Amazon for launching an MP3-only, DRM-free download store; to the big record labels for finally recognizing that DRM couldn't be made to work; to the little record labels for not asking for DRM in the first place.

Alas, I myself am not quite free of DRM. My own iTunes library features one purchased track, now available in iTunes Plus, for which I have yet to be offered a chance to pay 30 cents to upgrade it to Apple's higher-quality, DRM-free iTunes Plus format. (I've asked Apple for a response and will update the post when that arrives. Update: The company says that it sometimes has trouble matching up new iTunes Plus releases with their earlier, DRMed incarnations if there are slight differences between the two; in those cases, you should report the discrepancy through its "Contact iTunes Store Support" form.)

I also have about 100 tracks that I got for free as part of various promotions. Those aren't eligible for iTunes Plus upgrades, but I also don't like most of them all that much -- I may just delete them and buy the handful I enjoy. (Apple spokesman Jason Roth did say this morning that future freebie downloads will come in iTunes Plus format.)

But as part of the deal that allowed Apple to dispense with music DRM -- its TV and movie downloads remain subject to an even stricter set of digital locks -- the company agreed to let record labels pick one of three per-song prices. While labels can stick with the old 99-cents-a-song rate, they can also charge 69 cents or $1.29 each.

I have no quarrel with variable pricing in the abstract. It's not a difficult concept to grasp, and it doesn't affect my use of the song after the purchase. Its implementation can be another thing, though.

So far, the cheaper tracks seem hard to find. The iTunes Store's home page has a couple of "Great Songs At A Great Price" boxes spotlighting rock and R&B songs at the lower price; the finds there include the Clash's "London Calling," Soundgarden's "The Day I Tried to Live," Junior Walker and the All-Stars' "(I'm A) Road Runner," and Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get A Witness," among others that I can endorse. But I couldn't find any other 69-cent tracks in repeated searches (it may be that independent labels which, like Washington-based Dischord, have wanted to charge less haven't updated their own pricing).

Curiously enough, there's no comparable promotion of iTunes tracks at the higher price. But six of the ten "Top Songs" listed on the store's home page sell for $1.29 each, with the others at the traditional 99-cent price. Elsewhere, the tracks on U2's "No Line On the Horizon" sell for $1.29 each, while almost all of the songs on Bruce Springsteen's "Working On a Dream" go for 99 cents apiece.

Users may not mind the extra 30 cents, or they might simply shift their shopping to Amazon's cheaper MP3 store (which is where I wound up buying the new U2 release, motivated by a one-day sale).

In other digital-music news, EMI announced this morning that it would reissue the entire Beatles catalog in digitally remastered form... wait for it... only on CD. That's right, they're still figuring out what to do about this Internet thing:

Discussions regarding the digital distribution of the catalog will continue.There is no further information available at this time.

My three-word summary of the news on Twitter: "Stupidest. Management. Ever."

In the comments, you have a choice: a) report on your own experience with iTunes today, including whether you're still waiting for the chance to upgrade any past purchases to iTunes Plus; or b) predict the year when the Beatles will sell their music as digital downloads.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 7, 2009; 2:29 PM ET
Categories:  Music  
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Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Beatles issue isn't with EMI, but Apple Corps (the Beatle's firm). Ostensibly, it had to do with copyright issues (e.g. Apple vs. Apple Corps), but I personally believe it has to do with money, in the end.

From what I've heard from reports, Steve Jobs is a Beatles fan and would love to have them on iTunes, but so far, the band has been spurning him over some unresolved ($$$) issues...

Posted by: charlieartist | April 7, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

"Stupidest management ever"? What would be the point of digitally remastering (improving quality) an album only to issue it as an MP3 (lowering quality) be? Wanting a decontented copy of an enhanced version of a song seems to be the delusional element here.

Posted by: pitchinfromPDX | April 7, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

99.99999% of my music purchases is done digitally now. But.....I WILL be buying the box set with all the Beatles records. It is just something I would want to have.

Posted by: Handsome_John_Pruitt | April 7, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Gimme a new special print vinyl edition any day!

Posted by: Comunista | April 7, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Rob, don't forget about Between lala and Amazonmp3, I've been able to buy all of my album purchases this year for only $4.99-$7.99.

I'm glad iTunes is going DRM-free, but it's still more expensive and they still use AAC, which isn't great for when I want to listen to something on a non-Apple device, like a Sansa Clip.

Posted by: Corn_Laden | April 7, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

I guess my question is this: is the increase in sound quality for itunes plus actually noticeable, or is it one of those lower compressions that include more sound but at frequencies humans can't hear?

If it's the latter and I don't gain anything, why would I pay 30 cents to have apple remove crippling code that it shouldn't have included anyway?

I gave up on itunes a while back b/c of DRM. Amazon and even rhapsody offer the same product and about the same ease of use, why would anybody pay more for itunes?

Posted by: Booyah5000 | April 7, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the update, Rob. Having read the EMI press release on re-issuing the Beatles catalogue, I expect there will be a hefty price tag for the new CD's with extra "features". After all, "Sir Paul" has a lot of alimony to pay...

Since I started with the Beatles as a teenager, I have purchased all their vinyl albums, all the EMI CD's, and the newer re-mastered Capitol versions of all their American albums up through Rubber Soul (which includes all songs in both mono and stereo). I highly recommend the Capitol versions because they include the extra reverb and brighter mixes that all of us who were there remember as being so exciting when we first heard them on the radio. Frankly, the British EMI albums are a bit dull by comparison.

So I already have excellent Capitol re-masters of the early Beatles albums with the same sound mixes that I remember well from listening to them constantly back then. Capitol did a fine job of making the songs crisp and clear at a higher recorded volume level than the old EMI CD's. I will probably buy the new EMI CD's for albums after Rubber Soul that were issued the same way (stereo) in both the UK and the US. I hope they will be as good as the Capitol re-masters.

And you are correct that Apple is missing the boat on Mp3 sales. Almost nobody with normal ears (especially aging ears that lose the highs) listening to an Mp3 recording in a real world environment with ambient noise (car, home stereo) can tell any difference between the Mp3 and the CD. I copied all my album CD's into iTunes at 126kbs and they sound great.

I spent $2,000 at the iTunes store these past few years, but no longer. Amazon is cheaper and the Mp3 sound quality is excellent. There's no value to me in spending even more money on my existing protected iTunes songs to get the so-called better quality. My ears can't tell the difference, and I'll bet it's the same for everybody else. Popular music (old and new) simply doesn't have the dynamic or sonic range to take advantage of the extra bits of record quality. It's mixed to sound best on iPods, cars, and inexpensive home stereos. No need to pay more for what isn't there in the first place...

How many times must we pay so much extra in pursuit of technical "perfection" on home media when most people can't tell the difference, even if there is a discernible difference. I'm sure that's why Americans aren't paying more for Blu-Ray when a regular DVD on a player with HDMI looks just fine to most of us. Ah well, the Marketing Mavens must always have something new to sell...

Posted by: jbc3 | April 7, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

I resent having to pay an additional $.30 per song for songs I have already purchased. My purchases are probably over a thousand (maybe more), Apple should remove the DRM when you synch your iPod since you have purchased their product and the music from them -

Posted by: Consciouseye | April 7, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I definitely suggest folks shop around for their music. I only recently started doing this, and I have saved a ton by comparing pricing. definitely seems to have cheaper records all around. On a recent purchase of four albums, I saved $11. That is a lot of money, especially in this economy.

iTunes does often have exclusive bonus tracks on their albums which at times (for my favorite artists) has me spending the extra dollar or so. However, everyone should check out amazon's mp3 digital download store which is usually much cheaper than iTunes. And if you are looking for music that isn't explicit in nature, check out walmart's digital music store (generally the cheapest prices around).

Posted by: DinahS | April 7, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

McCartney had to pay the tripod a lot of money. Maybe this is how he plans to make it back. Stupid and greedy. Good luck. Not like iTunes has sold that many songs, right? Paul has a better idea, right?

Posted by: oo7 | April 7, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

What about the mono versions of The Beatles (White Album) and Sgt Pepper's LHCB?

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | April 7, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

'Pitchin' (above) asked 'What would be the point of digitally remastering (improving quality) an album only to issue it as an MP3 (lowering quality) be?'
The point would be to make the money selling to people who want downloads. I can't believe they'd pass on that given all the overhead in distributing CDs.
But beyond that, my understanding is that itunes encodes in AAC (mp4) at 256k, which would be superior to mp3 and closer to CD, which is not that great (lossless) encoding in itself. Remastering the Beatles catalog and releasing it on CD is already a waste, compared to what the originals sounded like on vinyl. I guess the best thing for those who want the best sound is to buy CDs and encode them as FLAC yourself.

Posted by: mokai | April 7, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Please keep in mind that this pricing is due to record labels not Apple. Why they force this upon iTunes and not Amazon is beyond me but I'm guessing when more people move to Amazon (or eventually no matter what) record labels will do the same to them. The difference is that Apple is the number 1 music sellers and record labels still want to make their large margins.

Rather than cutting their own bloated take (the artists themselves don't get enough to afford a reduction in royalties compared to the labels) the labels want to raise the price due to lost sales from people buying single songs instead of whole albums (of course before digital you had to buy a whole LP be it vinyl, 8 track, tape, or CD).

The labels don't want to acknowledge the fact that since they don't have to incur the cost of physically manufacturing and distributing physical copies or advertising on itunes, the cost to them boils down to providing a master digital file an meta information. Compared to marketing and distributing CDs, disc and packaging, that is practically zero yet they want to take the lions share of the profit without earning it.

Thank the record labels for this fiasco. Hopefully artists will now start to release independently. Maybe Apple should open it's own label and start working with artists directly.

Although I wonder what they would call it, certainly not "Apple Records."

Posted by: grantmh | April 7, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

About time the Beatles catalog will be remastered. Anyone who's heard the "Love" album knows how bad the 1987 CD releases sound compared to what could be done. (The DVD-Audio version of "Love" is even better.) Hell, my two 32-year-old mono LP copies of "Sgt Pepper" sound better than the 1987 CDs do. Give me a decent LP copy any time, especially compared to the crap low-rez downloads that are so popular with many people today. If I want to play it in the car, I'll copy the LP to a CD-R or CD-RW.

Posted by: 1995hoo | April 7, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

"007" writes "McCartney had to pay the tripod a lot of money."

This was a viscious and cruel statement. I don't understand how someone can be that cruel in public and how the Washington Post can allow such a comment. Shame on both of you.

Posted by: AnotherContrarian | April 7, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

"What about the mono versions of The Beatles (White Album) and Sgt Pepper's LHCB?"

These are finally coming (huzzah!) in a separate boxed set, "The Beatles in Mono."

I know someone's going to ridicule the idea of a mono recording these days, but for Beatles fans the mono recordings are interesting because they are in fact DIFFERENT recordings from the stereo versions. It's not a case of the same recording being mixed twice, once for stereo and once for mono; you actually hear quite different stuff at times.

Posted by: 1995hoo | April 7, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Thanks. I haven't purchased a music CD from a store in years and I stopped purchasing songs online after DRM music made a mess of my computer. It will be a long time before I will trust the online music stores again, if it ever happens.

Posted by: loved1 | April 7, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

People actually pay to download music?

I am waiting for the day when musicians make their money the old fashioned way: by going on tour. It worked for Mozart and Duke Ellington, it can work for today's 'artists'.

For those who want to make tons of money, they can promote products in their songs. Nobody really cares what Britney sings anyway.

And the Beatles are already available in digital download, their entire discography, in 320 and 192 bps, in fact. You can try mininova, piratebay, torrentz, ect. It is all available for the low cost of....FREE.

Posted by: salparadise661 | April 7, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I'll tell you what sucks. When you upgrade, the replaced versions don't have ANY of your ratings which means I have o go hunting through my collection yo re-rate everything so that it will go on to my iPhone's playlists. The new versions also do not have the playcount history, which really messes up my playlists as I have them set.

Posted by: jamdl01 | April 7, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse


Even more frustrating if you have a large collection is the fact that even if you tell itunes to delete the replaced files, it doesn't always do this. That happens a lot. Since the upgrade songs and albums are trickling in at this point that means every time I upgrade, I have to sift through everything to find the duplicates and "show duplicates" doesn't seem to work well so I have to eyeball it to find them.

Also, itunes doesn't do a very good job of assigning genre. I have created my own more specific genres to make finding music faster. The weird thing is that sometimes upgrading to plus tags the new version with my home-made genres and sometimes it doesn't — more eyeballing. This is especially painful in trying to sync my ipod with my home and work computers. I gave up on that. Now I'll just wait till my whole library gets updated and spend the hour it takes to copy my whole library to an external HD and use that to replace my work library (another hour to copy from the HD).

Oh well, once it's done things will be better (I hope).

Posted by: grantmh | April 7, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

I'd just like to point out that iTunes 8 is a disaster for dialup users. Very disappointing.

Thirty cents

Posted by: hylen | April 7, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

The Beatles CDs will probably be the last music I ever buy on CD.

Regarding the mono mixes - I highly recommend Jeff Emerick's recent book "Here, There, and Everywhere". He was the engineer from Revolver through the 90's anthology releases and he devotes a fair amount of time to what their intentions were in the mono mixes, and how the 1987 stereo mixes really didn't do the recordings justice. It's one of the few books that bring something new to recordings you've probably heard thousands of times.

There will always be some medium around for music - you can't autograph an MP3!!!

Posted by: mattmorrell1 | April 7, 2009 8:21 PM | Report abuse

Rob: You said: "In the comments, you have a choice..."

Instead, I'm picking choice C, which is to wonder aloud who creates the links on your blog.

Seriously, in one sentence, the words "for", "long" and "time" are all live linked to god-only-knows where else. Yeah, I can look in the status bar and make an educated guess where they are going take me, but the point is that the link text should be somehow related to the targets, or at least make it obvious where the link is taking me.

Posted by: dgloo | April 7, 2009 9:00 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Moo5150 | April 7, 2009 11:12 PM | Report abuse

Since Amazon MP3 came out, I try to buy exclusively from there. iTunes still has a better interface and more songs. I only try to buy from iTunes if it's DRM-free and it's not available on Amazon.

Oh by the way Amazon has also introduced $1.29 dollar songs in addition to its $0.79, $0.89, and $0.99 cent songs.

Posted by: jabreal00 | April 8, 2009 12:21 AM | Report abuse

Now... if only we can get rid of DRM on eBooks... the world would be a lot easier place. DRM is strangling the eBook industry just like it did with CD. Can we get a big "HOORAH" from Amazon??

Posted by: EZReader1 | April 8, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps I am getting off the subject here. But aside from the Beatles, I see no discussion of how the Creators of the music--i.e. musicians--fare under the new regs, whether better, worse, or same.

For just a moment, try to remember where the good vibes come from, in our lustful rush for the best, highest sound quality music for the cheapest price.

delphi80002 Philadelphia

Posted by: delphi80002 | April 8, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

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