The MacWorld Expo 2009 is on at the moment, and yesterday was the keynote, which was interesting despite the absence of the turtle-necked wonder (get well soon Steve).
By far the best news was that the entire iTunes library is going DRM-free by the end of March 09. As of yesterday, 80% of the songs are DRM-free, and the remaining 20% will have their DRM removed in the next 3 months. Apple have wanted to do this for a while of course, but the music labels have been dragging their feet - only EMI were willing to do DRM-free on iTunes before this. No doubt pressure from Amazon’s download service helped - Amazon already sells a ton of CDs, so has clout with the music labels, but they couldn’t practically use any DRM themselves because they couldn’t use Apple’s, and if it didn’t play on an iPod, few customers would be interested. So in a strange kind of way, Apple helped Amazon go DRM-free, and once Amazon’s service matured (it’s 18 months old in the US, despite only just being released in the UK) that then made it untenable for the other labels to continue insisting on DRM in iTunes too. These labels held out for as long as they could though, because they desperately want to break Apple’s hold on the download market - that market they themselves refused to acknowledge existed until it was too late (and interestingly, the movie studios have been making almost exactly the same mistake with their content too - it’s only a matter of time before that goes the same way). And so finally, we reach the conclusion that everyone knew was inevitable anyway.
It also means that there is no longer a price premium for DRM-free tracks, which used to be 20p a track. There are also going to be price restructures on iTunes, with tracks and albums split into 3 price categories based on popularity and age (ranging from $0.69 to the current $1.29 - not sure about UK prices yet, proportionately that suggests 42p to the current 79p). Unfortunately converting your old DRM-saddled library still costs 20p per track, even though you can now buy it DRM-free for the same price you previously bought it. Still, I don’t have that many DRM-enabled tracks from iTunes anyway, since it put me off - I bought a few singles, on iTunes Plus when I could, but all my albums are still physical. The removal of DRM and the price changes will almost certainly mean I will buy more from iTunes. Amazon’s service is nice too, but it lacks the breadth of choice (~3m tracks compared to ~10m on iTunes, I’ve already found several things missing), and doesn’t have the same cohesion iTunes does, with the band bio pages, album cross-links, and Genius suggestions - which are not only more accessible when I’m playing music anyway, but they tend to be better quality suggestions than Amazon’s related links which are more based on sales data. The price competition is good though, I’m sure Amazon’s promotions on popular albums are a major cause of the new, more competitive iTunes price structure.
A side-effect is that all the tracks are now 256kbps rather than 128kbps, as iTunes Plus had been for a while. Overall then, a good day for digital music. Shame it took so damn long for the music labels to wake up.