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Free music has never looked so cheap

DRM's gone. Now the problems begin...

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The rise of digital, and the popularity of buyers cherry-picking hits in preference to buying CDs, have made this cost-heavy model unsustainable. The independents can at least look to the future knowing they don't have huge expenses to cover: they can cut their cloth accordingly. Indies also embraced digital quicker because it gave them what they always struggled to get in the physical marketplace - a more level playing field. Distribution has always been the smaller labels' greatest problem.

If the future doesn't have a place for big record labels as they look today, it will have a place for something that looks like them, because the demand is there. Some artists will always get greedy and demand global marketing operations that make them as ubiquitous as the large brand advertisers, such as Nike, Nokia, and Pepsi. They need to remind us they're there, constantly. But most businesses will balk at such demands.

Both indies and majors can continue to provide good value CDs - top quality audio digital music that comes with its own backup copy - and if they package them well, charge a premium for the packaging. If I find a common flaw in both camps' thinking, it's the unjustified fear that physical sales will fall off a cliff.

However, the abundance of free illicit music creates a much deeper discomfort for majors and indies alike.

Digital evangelists hope the absence of friction, such as DRM, will make computer networks more attractive. Isn't a DRM-free world what The Register has been banging on about for years?

Well, yes, but it isn't clear that digital downloads will rise as a consequence. The like-for-like comparison means that if you choose to pay Apple for 10 DRM-free songs it'll cost you almost $20, while you'll get no artwork or backup copy. The digital maven now looks less of a pioneer, and more of a fool. By removing the ludicrous, artificial countermeasure of DRM it's now plain that individual unit sales of songs and even albums aren't sustainable for anyone in the digital world, except as publicity vehicles or loss leaders. For us, it makes no more sense buying digital music by the unit than it does dropping a 10p piece every few minutes into the radio set.

Do we cease to pay artists completely, or do we move to a model where music is a service? Thanks to EMI and Apple, that choice is a lot clearer today. ®

Bootnote: It hasn't escaped our notice that former EMI chief Alain Levy has finally got his way. Levy was ousted in the new year, but his call for an end to one-price, 99c downloads has at last been fulfilled...

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