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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

DRM free at last...but wait...

I'm sure you've heard by now, but the iTunes Music Store is finally going all DRM free with higher bitrates and variable pricing. As always the case, there's good and bad here, though for me I'm seeing more bad and indifferent than good.

First off, it's a good thing that Apple and the rest of the majors finally got past their logjam to offer all the tracks DRM free. Nice to see Apple finally catch up with the rest of the world, even if they still are offering tracks in their proprietary AAC format (no surprise) which not all media players support.

Then there's the mixed blessing of variable pricing. The way things were worded, it's implied that most of the catalog will be going to 69 cents a track. New releases are scheduled to stay at 99 cents and might go as high as $1.29 a track. I see this as a mixed blessing at best.

The lower price on the back catalog only makes sense, but the higher price on new releases strikes me as an attempt to break the 99 cents standard, which the majors have been trying to do for ages. We'll see if this higher price rolls out in Amazon and other stores. Since Apple is going to be at a disadvantage here if everyone else is selling new tracks thirty cents cheaper, I can't imagine they'd have agreed to this unless that was in the plans.

Now, like last time, Apple is making the option to "upgrade" your old iTunes purchases that are now iTunes Plus...for a fee. That fee is 30 cents a track. Although this may affect a small number of people, this is the part of the plan that really irritates me.

OK, I know there's no upgrades given or implied with iTunes Music Store purchases. I get that. However, there is a prescient for free upgrades. When some of the other stores converted from DRM encoded WMA files to mp3, users were given tracks in the new formats. To be fair, there's a slight difference here; the WMA files would be useless once the DRM servers were turned off. But, that was a risk the user was expected to assume, yet after the outcry, they were switched over for free as an act of goodwill.

Let's look at the money here. Assuming you paid 99 cents a track, adding the 30 cents upgrade puts you at $1.29. Now, we've also learned that most of the catalog is supposed to drop to 69 cents. If you upgrade your tracks, you've just about paid double for them, based on the information that back catalog is going to drop in price.

The most infuriating thing is that, once again, the upgrades are presented in an "all or nothing" form. Meaning, to upgrade that out of print Quincy Jones album I really like, I'm also going to have to pay 30 cents a pop to upgrade dozens of tracks don't want. While I can at least see where the upgrade fee is coming from, forcing users to convert all their purchases rather than letting them choose the ones they want is completely ridiculous.

While I think it's good that Apple and the labels have worked out their differences, I'm still finding much to be skeptical about. The lowering of back catalog prices is good (assuming it happens,) but I fear the trend is going to be aimed more at raising the price on new releases. And while the option to upgrade is nice, forcing consumers to upgrade everything is not, especially considering they'll have almost paid double for back catalog items once the price drops happen.

Of course, as long as people's old purchased tracks still play, I doubt many are going to care about any of this anyway. And, until new release prices go up, I'd imagine most iTunes Music Store users will continue to make purchases, not really even aware of the changes.

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