Universal's power play

What it means that the record label is selling DRM-free tracks through everyone but iTunes.

The Macalope read the headline Thursday that Universal would be offering DRM-free music but didn't realize until reading Daring Fireball's post on it this morning that it would only be offering its music DRM-free on stores other than iTunes. On iTunes, it will continue to offer only DRM-ed music.

John Gruber asks:

Um, Universal won't sell DRM-free music through iTunes because they don't like Apple's DRM? WTF? Am I even supposed to pretend this makes sense?

In typical, twisted recording industry logic it does make sense. What do customers want? They want the most convenient way to put music on their digital music players which, by and large, are iPods.

So, trust Universal to make it confusing and inconvenient.

Still, this is good news for those who care about having their music be DRM-free, right? Isn't it just another step toward a DRM-free world?

Well, maybe, maybe not. This may shock you (particularly if you're Cory Doctorow), but most consumers don't care that much about DRM. Sure, they'd prefer not to have it, but their primary motivations are convenience and making sure their music will play on their iPod.

And what's this business about the deal just being until January? The New York Times reports:

The offer of Universal's music under the new terms is being framed as a test, to run into January, allowing executives to study consumer demand and any effect on online piracy.

Hmm. It seems to the horned one that iTunes is the most popular music store and this won't really change that. (How many iTunes shoppers are going to check to see if a song is from Universal before they click "Buy"?) So at the end of the year is Universal going to say "We tried DRM-free music and no one bought it"?

Speaking of Cory Doctorow, he has his own spin on the news which, predictably, starts with a long screed about the eeevilz of Apple's DRM.

For record companies, there are only two choices: sell Apple-crippled music and increase Apple's control over the online music business, or sell uncrippled music.

Actually, no. As Universal has shown, you can do both and make yet another move that's more motivated by trying to gain market power than delivering something your customers want. Universal could sell DRM-free music on iTunes. It's choosing not to. Doctorow somehow wants to blame this on Apple, the first company to bring a major label to market with DRM-free tracks.

So it's inevitable that Universal would come around to this position. They're not selling DRM-free tracks through iTunes (where Apple charges a 30 percent premium)--they're selling them through Apple's competitors.

According to Doctorow, Apple--the company that single-handedly kept the recording industry from charging us more than 99 cents for current hits for years--is the one to blame for the $1.29 price for higher quality DRM-free tracks, not EMI.

Sure. And Universal would just love to sell 99-cent DRM-free tracks on iTunes but big, bad Apple won't let them.

Doctorow continues to disregard Steve Jobs' open letter on DRM as entirely disingenuous. But there's ample evidence that Apple would prefer to sell an entire collection of DRM-free music. For the umpteenth time, Apple does not own the market because of DRM. It owns the market because the iPod is simply the best digital music player.

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    Born of the earth, forged in fire, the Macalope was branded "nonstandard" and "proprietary" by the IT world and considered a freak of nature. Part man, part Mac, and part antelope, the Macalope set forth on a quest to save his beloved platform. Long-eclipsed by his more prodigious cousin, the jackalope (they breed like rabbits, you know), the Macalope's time has come. Apple news and rumormonger extraordinaire, the Macalope provides a uniquely polymorphic approach. Disclosure.

     

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