Sharp Darts: One Down, Three to Go | Music Column | Chicago Reader

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Sharp Darts: One Down, Three to Go

The first of the major labels unlocks its digital catalog.

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A month and a half ago I wrote a column in response to "Thoughts on Music," an essay Apple CEO Steve Jobs posted on the company's Web site where he explained why he thought major record labels should abandon digital rights management, or DRM--a polite name for the security measures injected into the song files sold through most digital-music stores. DRM is supposed to keep you from sharing copyrighted music, whether over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks or through burned CDs, but every DRM scheme ever released has been smacked down by hackers. And since DRM dictates what you can and can't do with music you've legally purchased, it adds a nagging-parent aspect to the majors' public image--an image that's already been sullied by guilt-trip antipiracy ads and aggressive but ineffective lawsuits against alleged P2P users.

Ditching DRM, Jobs said, would be a key step in the development of an online music marketplace that could replace sales of physical CDs. It seems at least a few of the suits are buying his argument. On April 2, EMI and Apple announced that as of May 1 the entirety of EMI's digital back catalog and all its future releases will be available through Apple's iTunes Music Store in new DRM-free versions. (Unfortunately, that catalog still has a hole where the Beatles should be, thanks to the reluctance of the band's music holding company to work with digital retailers.)

Apple made its announcement in the this-is-gonna-change-the-world-and-make-you-happy-in-ways-you-can-scarcely-imagine tone it uses for most of its tech rollouts, and EMI added a touch of unwarranted magnanimousness ("EMI and iTunes are once again teaming up to move the digital music industry forward"). True, EMI's move is a nice change from the majors' default position of treating their buying public like filthy criminals, but it's not like the label doesn't stand to gain. The fact that they're the first to embrace Jobs's "music for the people" philosophy is a PR coup and ought to endear them to online consumers who haven't already turned their backs on the majors. The label will also profit directly: the DRM-free tracks will run $1.29 apiece, rather than Apple's standard 99 cents, and you'll be able to upgrade previously purchased tracks by paying the difference.

The DRM-free versions are higher quality--they're encoded at 256 kbps, not the default 128--but that's mostly a fig leaf for the price increase and shouldn't cost EMI a thing. (The minuscule added expense for storage and bandwidth is iTunes' problem.) Apple makes the highly dubious claim that the DRM-free files will be "indistinguishable" from the original recordings, but that's irrelevant if you usually play your music through laptop speakers or shitty iPod earbuds--chances are you won't be able to hear the improvement, much less tell whether your song files exactly reproduce the CD. Apple won't say how the extra money's getting split up, but to me the 30-cent premium looks a lot like the one-dollar kickback Universal collects for every Zune Microsoft sells--a little something to offset the product's presumed role in piracy. (Some folks at the geek-friendly Web site Slashdot are predicting that DRM-free iTunes files will be stamped with unique digital watermarks, so that people who do trade them can be tracked; Apple acknowledges that its files are encoded at purchase with accounting information, but wouldn't comment on the Slashdot theory.) Of course, there's no reason to pay the premium unless you want the extra kbps: it's all but certain you'll still be able to illegally unlock the 99-cent files with easy-to-use software like PlayFair, which you can download free off the Internet.

EMI's arrangement with Apple isn't exclusive, and Microsoft, which had some harsh words for "Thoughts on Music," reversed course and announced on April 6 that it would start selling the DRM-free EMI tracks through its Zune Marketplace too. The company even hinted that it had deals in progress with the rest of the Big Four. But no one seriously doubts that it was Apple's move that forced Microsoft's hand. And Apple apparently also has deals in the works with other majors: Jobs predicts that iTunes will be able to offer "more than half of the songs on iTunes in DRM-free versions by the end of this year."

By taking the lead on the DRM issue, the company has positioned itself not only as the bringer of technological utopia but as the retailer most likely to win over CD buyers who haven't yet made the transition to the download-only marketplace.

And it wins another way: through iTunes the unlocked songs will be sold as AAC files, Apple's preferred format, rather than as universally playable MP3s. As Eliot Van Buskirk and Rob Beschizza of Wired magazine point out, this could give AAC yet another leg up on Microsoft's WMA format, which is already suffering from the iTunes Music Store's roughly 80 percent market share. (Microsoft's decision to sell unlocked songs--presumably as WMA files--makes the outcome only slightly less certain.) Though Billboard estimates that only 10 percent of digital music players support AAC right out of the box, that 10 percent includes the Zune, many Sony devices, and the iPod, which all by itself accounts for about 70 percent of the units out there. Apple is clearly angling to cement the dominance of AAC by creating incentives for more manufacturers to support the format--and it'll give its already overwhelmingly popular iTunes-iPod suite an extra competitive advantage if customers using other platforms don't have to convert their files to switch.

I wasn't expecting the DRM-free future to arrive without some sort of added cost for the consumer. Maybe the fact that I'm excited about it is evidence of Stockholm syndrome--after years of getting treated like shit by the big labels, maybe I've internalized their fucked-up outlook so thoroughly that I'm actually grateful to pay them for the fair-use rights they stole from us in the first place. But given that the majors never give anything away, I'm glad that now we can at least get something from them worth paying for.

Reckless Expansion

The prospect of an all-digital music marketplace has a lot of brick-and-mortar retailers rushing to adapt, but Chicago's Reckless Records chain still does less than 5 percent of its business online. It also seems unfazed by big boxes like Best Buy and Wal-Mart, whose loss-leader tactics have wreaked havoc on record stores. Funky mom-and-pops like Hi-Fi Records and the Dr. Wax in Edgewater have been joined on the casualty list by the entire Tower Records chain, but Reckless is expanding: the new location at 26 E. Madison opened last week, and I dropped in on its second day.

Opening a new store in the Loop--one of the few neighborhoods more expensive than Wicker Park or Lakeview, where the other Recklesses are--seems absolutely bonkers. Most of the shoppers swarming the sidewalks look like they just strolled out of Forever 21 or H&M, not like they're itching to score a rare vinyl copy of the EP Nurse With Wound made with Stereolab. But the new Reckless was already doing brisk business. The space is small--about the size of the magazine section at the Virgin Megastore--so the dozen shoppers flipping through the vinyl bins made it look just as crowded as its bigger siblings. And according to manager Dylan Posa, the downtown store actually pays less rent per square foot of retail space.

The inventory is scaled down quite a bit, as a matter of necessity, but little seems to have been done to increase the shop's appeal to the downtown crowd. Though some of the featured selections I saw--Jarvis Cocker and Amy Winehouse CDs, an imported vinyl reissue of In Utero--were pretty mainstream, they shared space with relative obscurities like Tragedy's Nerve Damage. Prices are the same as at other locations, and the new Reckless buys and sells used music too--though unlike the others it won't take cassettes or VHS tapes. And given the familiar look I caught on many shoppers' faces--the obsessive focus of someone hunting for a score--the downtown store is attracting the same kind of clientele as its siblings. The record geek, it seems, can survive in even a scrap of its natural habitat.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Reckless Records at 26 E. Madison photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni; illustration/Godfrey Carmona.

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