DRM: Is Apple or are the record labels right?

If you’re having a hard time figuring out what’s what in the labels vs. Apple war over DRM, don’t feel too bad- it’s a pissing contest that’s still being fought out publicly. The reason that there’s such harsh rhetoric flying around is because there’s so much at stake here. Apple doesn’t want to lose its domination over the downloadable music market and sees it threatened not just by the labels jockeying for flexible price plans but also grumpy European governments who don’t like the Apple system that locks down all their music content to their own player (iPod). For the labels, they don’t just want the ability to raise or lower prices with Apple, they wanna play the market with other companies so that they’re not tied to or limited by Apple’s strategies (which obviously looks out for their own company above all else).

To see the groundwork for this fight, let’s sample some of the jawing that each side is spewing in various publications. After Steve Jobs made his own announcement about how Apple is peachy keen on lifting DRM from the music files it sells (right around the time that Norway threatened to outlaw Apple’s DRM system), the labels cried foul, claiming that he was a self-serving hypocrite. See these three examples:

* Music Industry Group Fires Back at Apple

* RIAA’s Bainwol responds to Jobs

* Jobs motives questioned by label reps

This fight even led one major to push up its plan for scrapping DRM: EMI considering DRM-free online sales.

The labels make the argument that Apple itself uses a system to lock down music to the iPod so how dare Jobs say that the problem is the labels and their own DRM requirements. A good point is made here that both sides use their own technologies to limit what the user can or can’t do with the music they purchase. The problem is that a market that’s been used to making mixtapes for themselves or friends and mix CD’s the same way isn’t thrilled with the prospect of having this ability limited. That’s a major reason why online sales aren’t making up for the slump in CD sales now, which the industry hoped would happen. Having hit this brick wall, the industry is panicking now, wondering what to do. Is Apple right to criticize DRM? Are the majors right to criticize Apple’s system (Fair Play) which restricts music to their own system (iTunes and the iPod)? Is EMI right to say that they’re not going to get consumers excited about their offerings until they get rid of ALL the restrictions?

My own feeling is that EMI has the right idea and that both Apple and the rest of the majors are doomed if they keep going down the same path. They can offer all the extras, bells and whistles they like to get consumers to keep buying the same music in new formats (not just reissues but also whatever the next technology is going to be that replaces the MP3) but if they keep trying to tell consumers exactly how and where and why they can access the music they’ve bought, it’s going to keep ruining the industry. It’s not just a choice for music fans between free and 99 cents for a song but also hearing and accessing the music the way they want versus a set of arcane rules that restricts all of that. Music fans are literally and figuratively not buying that. Both Apple and the labels are going to have to wake up to the fact sooner or later or they’re going to be history.

Like most sane people not directly tied into the industry, I’m not that excited about the Grammys- remember how American Idol kicked their butts last year? I’ll still watch it since it’s part of the industry I cover and write about plus there might be some good performances. But also, there are the sanctimonious speeches that the NARAS head has traditionally given about the evils of illegal downloading for the last few years. I’m sure we’ll see more of the same but I also wonder if they’ll address this DRM fight or take a subtle swipe at Apple or not. Granted, it won’t be as fun as Beyonce’s or Justin’s performance tonight but it’ll part of the battle about how you’ll hear and consume these artists’ music in the future.