Digital Rights Management is a scourge we all live with in order to download music digitally (and legally) over the Internet. But lately companies are making moves to change that. (Side note: My objection to DRM isn’t about being able to share music, but about being able to play it on any device I own. I also firmly believe that the DRM software that comes attached to content files and the systems built in to monitor DRM are a big part of the problems we see on many systems these days. ) Apple now offers some DRM free music. Walmart has entered the fray and is offering DRM free downloads. Last week Amazon.com made its move as well. Of course some of this is aiming at Apple’s dominance, but Amazon and Walmart are also trying to grab a piece of a very lucrative pie.
I’ve been locked into iTunes for quite some time now and continue to be so, but recently I’ve given both of these other two big retailers a shot to see how their services work. Here’s a report.
First, to use Apple’s iTunes DRM free music downloads you still have to use iTunes, which at times can slow my system down, and in this day and age of iPhone unlocking madness, seems to be updated every other day or so. You are limited on iTunes to EMI Music’s catalog (I’m sure Apple is working on other deals with the other labels) and the cost of a DRM free cut is $1.29 per song. Apple is touting a higher bit-rate (256kbps vs. 128kbps ) which supposedly gives you quality equal to the original recording. You can upgrade your entire collection to the higher bit-rate for $.30 a cut. I’ve downloaded a few songs and an album and everything works as advertised.
Walmart’s service is web based and as of the moment only works with Windows and only works with Firefox. That will need to change if they want to be competitive. They are offering DRM free selections from EMI and Universal Music Group, and at the moment Walmart’s prices undercut Apple, with single songs at $0.94 a track and $9.22 for an album. (Some prices for selected songs and albums are lower.) Again the encoding is 256kbps. Walmart offers some files in both mp3 and wma formats. There is a price difference as well. Wma files are $0.88 and mp3 files are $.94. Two keys here, the mp3 files are a higher quality and can be moved around to the music player of your choice and burned to optical media as much as you want. Not so with the wma files. And of course wma files won’t play on your iPod. Walmart’s downloads works OK, but if you use iTunes you’ll have to manually add the cuts to you music library (although the website says you don’t.) Not a big deal, but another step if you’re on that Apple iTunes/iPod treadmill. What I’ve downloaded works as advertised.
The new kid on the block (as of this week) as a very attractive offering in my opinion. If you’re downloading just songs you just choose the song, pay the freight and you’re done. If you’re purchasing an album you need to download their downloading software which has a very small footprint, downloads the files much faster than iTunes, and if you’re using iTunes, it plops your purchases right into your iTunes library and then removes itself from memory. Amazon has a variable pricing strategy and is offering songs ranging from $0.89 to $0.99 and albums from $5.99 to $9.99. The plan is to have the best selling albums priced at $8.99, which again undercuts Apple’s strategy. Like Walmart they are offering DRM free tunes from the EMI and Universal catalogs. Everything I’ve downloaded works as advertised, but I was greatly impressed with the speed of the downloads from Amazon.
The bottom line in the market here is that Apple now has some competition and EMI and Universal are experimenting big time with DRM free cuts. I’m guessing things will constantly change and morph here as the competition continues to heat up. My bottom line is much simpler. At least for now, it is nice to know I can download some of the music I want legally and use it on whatever device I choose to. That portability is a wonderful thing.