So I now get the majority of my music online, since it’s a better deal overall when compared to the price of a physical CD. There are a lot of places out there to get your music legally, but most of them have to tie down their tracks with loads of DRM in order to get contracts with the “Big Four” record labels that control 80% of the U.S. music market: Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony BMG, and Universal Music Group. Basically, these guys got paranoid with the first peer-to-peer filesharing networks, like Napster, and believe that the only way to sell music online is to treat their customers like criminals by policing the usage of files that they already purchased.
The truth is, this DRM does nothing to stop people who are pirating music, and makes life a lot harder from the people who do legally acquire their music. Depending on the store, you are limited in how many times you can transfer your songs, what devices or programs they will play on, and how you can back the files up. And then add the Digital Milennium Copyright Act, which makes it illegal to circumvent such inconveniences on the tracks you already own, and DRM-infected tracks just become one big nusience.
The other problem is that the major music labels are doing a very bad job at supporting their artists. Courtney Love has a very interesting insider account of how these companies, who are nothing without their musicians, take the money and run. And the picture is getting even worse: the RIAA is lobbying to reduce the royalties that music labels are legally obligated to pay their artists.
These labels were already pretty bad when people were just buying CDs. But now that everything is moving online, and they are treating their customers like criminals with DRM while they themselves are stealing profits from their artists, it’s a combination I’m not willing to support.
eMusic is the largest online retailer of independent music and the second largest online retailer overall, with over 1.4 million tracks (at #1, iTunes has over 3 million). They are not signed with any of the four large music labels because they don’t put any DRM on their tracks – instead, everything is a high-quality file (192kbps VBR MP3) that plays on any device or music program. They are subscription based, giving you a fixed number of downloads per month. Other subscription-based services require you to renew your tracks, and once you stop paying, you lose all of your music.
eMusic’s cheapest plan gives you 30 tracks a month for $9.99 – on iTunes, this much buys you one DRM-infected album.
So this isn’t without that major hangup- the major labels aren’t signed on, so there is a lot of stuff that you can’t get here. Pop and classic rock fans need not apply. But what many would view as a weakness, I am thoroughly enjoying: I get a taste of a bunch of stuff I haven’t heard before. And if you are at all into Jazz or Classical, their collection is humongous – and with many big names and rare recordings: look at their Miles Davis or John Coltrane collection. Like reggae? Check out their pile of Sly & Robbie. And there’s lots of current “indie” music to like, as well: Barenaked Ladies, Alkaline Trio, and Sufjan Stevens come to mind.
Mainly, though, I feel like I’m voting with my dollars to show that there is a demand for music that supports its artists and gives customers power to do what they want with their purchases. I think that the labels are starting to see that DRM-free is the way to go, and are experimenting with the idea of unchaining their music. Once they do so, I’ll be a glad buyer.
So if you want to stick it to The Man, support some artists, and expand your collection on the cheap, give eMusic a try. If you drop me a comment, I can e-mail you a link to a trial with 25 free songs.