Amazon is selling MP3s. Right now it’s US only (and I’ve got a sneaky US account on the side) but hopefully this will reach foreign shores before too long. Straight out of the starting gate, they’ve got about 2 million songs on offer. Every single one of those songs is encoded at 256kbps with no DRM. It’s that last detail that makes this such a big deal.
I’ve never been able to get my head around the justifications for DRM. In the past, I have been literally sitting in front of my computer with my credit card in hand, eager to spend money on music I love. But rather than greet me with open arms, services like iTunes instead treat me with suspicion, demanding that they get to call the shots about how I can use music that I’ve bought.
For a really egregious example of where this can lead, take note that Virgin Digital is shutting down:
All tracks used Windows Media DRM, and therefore were only playable under Windows and on WMA-compatible devices. The site now advises its customers who have purchased tracks to back them up, as they will not be able to download them again once Virgin Digital has closed. It’s unclear whether the purchasers of individual tracks will be able to access their songs without burning them to CD and reimporting them as MP3s, but it’s better to be safe than sorry if you’re one of those customers. And naturally, subscribing members will lose access altogether once their subscriptions lapse.
DRM-crippled suppliers treat me like a criminal. That turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s precisely because of the DRM that I resort to using peer-to-peer networks or other illicit means of music acquisition.
Make no mistake, the design of the iTunes music store trumps Amazon on just about every level. For most of the purchasing process, the user experience is far superior on iTunes. But the user experience doesn’t end with a financial transaction. The user experience of interacting with the purchased song continues long after leaving the store.
I haven’t bought anything from the iTunes music store because of the DRM. I have used it though: I’ve been given gift certificates for iTunes downloads. This is what I have to do after completing a download:
- Pull out the read/write CD I keep just for this,
- Burn my new music to the CD,
- Rip the music back as MP3,
- Erase the CD in preparation for step 1.
And that’s perfectly
legal *. But I can’t just convert from DRMed AAC straight to MP3—that would be illegal.
Now, it’s pretty clear that this kind of “copy protection” isn’t going to get in the way of anyone who seriously wants to make copies of the music. All it does is place frustrating stumbling blocks in the path of legitimate customers who want to listen to their purchased music wherever they choose.
I hope that the launch of the Amazon MP3 store is a sign that record companies are finally beginning to realise that people who want their music to be open and portable aren’t criminals—they’re music lovers.
John Gruber puts it best when he says:
Given the Amazon MP3 Store’s audio quality, prices, and user experience, I can’t see why anyone would buy DRM-restricted music from iTunes that’s available from Amazon.
In a wonderful twist, the current number one bestselling song on Amazon is 1234 by Feist— the very song that Apple uses to promote the iPod Nano. And why not? iPods and MP3s have always been a great combination (it always frustrates me when I read reports by lazy journalists that contain statements such as “only songs purchased from Apple’s iTunes music store can be played on the iPod”). I suspect that the vast majority of iPods are filled with un-DRMed music, mostly ripped from CD. Now, thanks to Amazon, there’s also an easy way to fill them with un-DRMed music downloaded from the tubes of the internets.
* Matthew points out that
back-ups, archiving, shifting format, all currently illegal in the UK. Here’s the petition to change that. Even the government agrees that the current situation is pretty stupid but the law hasn’t changed.