Not all digital music is created equal

You've probably heard of the iPod, Apple's foray into the digital music world. It's been immensely popular and along with the iTunes Music Store, has really created a major push toward digitally purchased music. They've popularized a new trend in grabbing songs that you

Napster really started it, I'd say. People loved Napster and the way you could get any song your heart desired with a simple click. Of course, we all knew it wouldn't last. The semi-illegal (at best) trading of songs over the internet was bound to be pushed to the background as legitimate retailers began selling the same thing for a fair price. I think that's great. The mission that Napster really needed to fill was to knock some sense into the music industry, mainly the musicians, and wake them up to a new way of distribution.

And many of them are. It's now possible to purchase a large range of music over the internet. Apple has deals with just about every major record label to sell their songs as downloadable track. But be very careful because there are a lot of merchants out there and not all digital music was created equally.

First, the doghouse. We'll start with the new Napster. For good or for ill, it is nothing like the original Napster except for the name. It was purchased by Roxio who rebranded their PressPlay service with the infamous name. Their service revolves around a pay-to-listen model which is not necessarily the same as pay-to-download. The key ingredient here is that if you ever cancel your monthly membership with Napster, all the music you've downloaded from them will stop working. Forever. They don't tout that message up front, but they don't exactly hide it either.

Let's leave it there for a moment and discuss Walmart. They launched a music store to compete with all the big boys and are selling songs at $0.88 a track compared to $0.99 from Apple. Despite the frequent use of the words "buy" and "sell" on their site, however, their terms of sale clearly state that you only have a "limited, nontransferable, nonexclusive, revocable, nonsublicensable right to use the Products" in whatever manner they specify. Did you notice that they can revoke your privilege (not right) to listen to the music? Under these terms they could arbitrarily require you to delete all the music they had previously "sold" to you.

So how are these companies able to offer such fabulous deals to you? Through the wonders of digital rights management, or DRM. It's an idea that is flawed in design as it aims to allow you access to something without really allowing you access. Your music is encrypted and the key is hidden somewhere on your computer. Every time you pull up your song, your media player checks it's list of rules to see if it wants to let you listen to that particular song. Those rules could include anything that a rights holder or retailer chooses to force on you. For a great essay on why DRM is bad for consumers and producers, read this essay by Cory Doctorow.

The other point to consider is remuniration of the artists. When you pay Napster $14.99 a month, they keep a little and pass on the rest to the record label with whom they have agreements. Those labels will then take a cut and pass on any payments to artists as their agreements specify. For each sale at Walmart, Napster, iTunes, etc. an artist may see as much as a few pennies. A dime perhaps. That may actually be more than they recieve per song for a CD sale, but the point is that by switching our music purchases to this internet model we are only perpetuating the musician extortion scheme we currently have. One of the chief complaints I heard about Napster was that users were stealing money from starving artists. As I look at it, $0.03 vs. $0.00 isn't much of a difference.

Oh, I could go on and on complaining about the music industry but I expect I would do nothing but bore you to tears. Instead I would like to point out that we don't have to follow the status quo. Nobody is forcing us to "purchase" music using these corrupt channels. We can stand up and make a difference.

The first place to look would be progressive music labels, like Magnatune. You can tell a lot about them from their motto, "we're not evil". At Magnatune you can purchase a wide range of music with no DRM attached. You have your choice of music formats. And you can name your own price. They only sell by the album, which is a slight drawback in my mind. And if that weren't enough, you can listen to every piece of music before you buy it. Not just 30 seconds, but entire tracks and entire albums. The only thing that could possibly make Magnatune better is that they sign only non-exclusive deals with artists. That means that artists can print their own CDs and sell them at concerts. They can set up a competing website and hawk their songs. All of the rights remain with the artist.

What else? How about free music? I wrote an article a few weeks back about the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas that is offering over 750 songs for free download. Since that time I haven't yet made it all the way through but I've found quite a few songs that I enjoy. You just can't beat that with a stick. You see, musicians (and most artists, in fact) face a much greater threat from obscurity than they do from illegal downloads. The chances of making it big with a record label and winning a Grammy are so slim that's it's rediculous. And in the current climate, you just aren't going to be heard on the radio or pushed at Musicland unless you're a top 100 artist. Why not give away copies of your music and hope to find somebody to attend your concert? It sure makes sense to me. Live music kicks butt over even the best stereo.

I'll just conclude with a plug for a band that I have enjoyed, Border Crossing. It's a good friend of mine's brother and his buddy. I think they sound a bit like Simon and Garfunkel. If you've got $15 bucks burning a hole in your pocket, consider whether you'd rather feed a corrupt industry feeding off of young talent too naive to know what they're getting into, or two guys with regular day jobs and a love of playing the guitar. I've made my choice.


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