It's embarrassing to admit this, but when I first heard EMI's announcement that it would begin to sell its music catalogue free of restrictive digital-rights management (DRM), I thought I was the victim of an April Fool's prank. EMI's latest move is no joke, however, and its shift away from this defective, anti-consumer technology is all for the good.
Regular readers will recall that Steve Jobs, head of Apple, threw down the gauntlet to the record business at the start of February when he urged the industry to give up DRM. His challenge echoed long-held concerns of the geek community: that DRM, though designed to keep legitimately bought downloads off peer-to-peer file-sharing systems, in fact only succeeds in punishing honest customers by making downloads far less flexible than music on CD.
Although it would be unfair to conclude that Jobs's intervention showed EMI the light, it was certainly a catalyst. On 2 April, EMI announced that Apple's iTunes would be the first online store to sell its catalogue DRM-free. The music would be made available in the so-called Advanced Audio Codec format, an improvement in sound quality that justified, so it seems, an increase in price of 20p per individual track (although no price hike on album purchases). Customers would also be permitted to "upgrade" their existing collection to AAC for 20p per track. An announcement of a partnership with Microsoft followed this past week.
EMI's competitors will be watching very closely to see what happens next. Some will be expecting this release of EMI assets "into the wild" to end in tears for the ailing British company. But others, I suspect, are kicking themselves that EMI got there first. After all, DRM or no, pretty much every track ever recorded is already available somewhere on a peer-to-peer file-sharing system. Offering better-quality, non-restricted music for legal download from sites that are easy to use and don't run the risk of incurring a large fine will only swell the ranks of EMI's customers.
More to the point, EMI has finally opened up the market place for selling music online, putting its products at the centre. Its announcement invites retail partners to approach the company about selling the EMI catalogue in any non-DRMed format. Which means that, from now on, it's not only wizened old incumbents like Apple that can afford to play with EMI, but innovative young companies which are experimenting with new ways of putting people in touch with music they'll love. Indeed, EMI has already signed a deal with Last.fm, the clever music recommendation service that is one of the UK's biggest online success stories.
No, it's no April Fool joke - this column finally has something good to say about the recording industry. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy some downloads.