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Apple’s Deal With the Devil

6 May 2003 · Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Apple Computer launched an online music store last week to much hype and much rejoicing among the Mac faithful. In the first week since its launch, the store has moved 1,000,000 tracks out across the Internet at US$0.99 a pop. This is all glorious and righteous…right?

The Register offers another take on the situation:

[The] music “industry” is desperate for the venture to succeed, as it represents the first public acceptance of DRM, which it has spent fruitless years seeking to promote. DRM is a restrictive technology which will assure these villains’ future.

DRM, for those not in-the-digital-music-know, stands for Digital Rights Management. This technology—enabled by a combination of software and information embedded in digital media—determines where and how often you can enjoy the music, video, or e-book files on your computer.

Historically, users have rejected DRM out-of-hand because it has been cumbersome to use and too restrictive. Now, consumers are voting with their wallets and the message is loud and clear: the Apple Music Store has found a sweet spot by combining ease-of-use with minimal rights restrictions.

So, what’s got The Register all worked up? They argue that any DRM extends the lifespan of Big Music, the major labels that effectively control what most people hear on the radio and what’s available to buy in all but the most fiercely independent music stores, both on- and off-line. Is that all bad?

Running a music label is a business. Even the minis and indies (there are no mids left, they all got bought out by the bigs) have to make money to survive. The big labels have this down to a science, with focus groups informing professional pop-lyric writers and ear-candy-spewing producers who doll up (what seems like) a new pretty face each week, handing off their creation to marketing who claims for the gazillionth time this year that this is “the next big thing.”

There is good, original music out there. Ideally, a record label helps it get noticed. Unfortunately, the industry of music often makes it harder rather than easier to find. In the bad old days, it was next to impossible to find music that wasn’t promoted by a label. Now, technology exists to enable artists to reach listeners without their help. This has the major labels running scared. Perhaps The Reg is right, DRM merely lets the Big Five cling to an undeservedly large role in the process. If so, artists will find a way to reach listeners without them and the whole argument will be rendered, once and for all, moot.

This article was first published on a group blog I started with some friends called Scree. Reprinted with permission.