Summary: Leave P2P, iTunes, and wasted plastic behind. When you can’t get your mp3s from an independent distributor like CDBaby, Amazon offers high-quality mp3s without DRM. It’s time to start buying music again.
Out here, in the world, far from the offices of RIAA executives and their overzealous lawyers, plodding along ignorant of the many layers that exist between ourselves and the artists, are the people who listen to music. We don’t want much. Access to music we like. At a fair price. And seriously, no DRM.
First, let’s be clear. Despite my utter frustration with the state of the digital music market in recent years, I have never been an advocate of stealing music. As you can see from my previous post, I take intellectual property seriously and I don’t play nice when people steal from me. So this is in no way a defense of music piracy. I get why people turned to stealing music though. For many of them, it was the same reason I mostly gave up procuring new music altogether for several years. But for those of us who never objected to paying a fair price for a fair product, I think the market is finally catching up with us …
Tempering the “fuck RIAA” mentality
I will say without qualification that I feel no sympathy whatsoever for the recording companies that compose RIAA. These companies have repeatedly overlooked fairness in order to protect their dominance in the music industry, continue their unfair treatment of recording artists, and preserve an ineffective, lopsided distribution model. It has been their incompetence, breach of public trust, mistreatment of Internet radio, and lack of foresight that created the music piracy monster in the first place. To the extent that they have lost profits because of music piracy, I can’t help but think they brought it upon themselves. The problem is they also brought it upon the artists, for whom I do feel a great deal of sympathy. Until recently, I think the choice came down to either (1) eating the toxic DRM, funding the evil RIAA machine, and hoping the artist got a few pennies to buy macaroni and cheese for her babies, or (2) sticking it to the man by stealing music, while the artists starve to death in the gutter. Not the best options. So I opted out, bought a few CDs now and then, but mostly I just listened to Pandora and KEXP and complained a lot about DRM and RIAA.
I’m not trying to be overly idealistic about the piracy situation. I realize there will always be people who steal music regardless of how fair the digital music business becomes for consumers. But I think that contingent of people exists on a continuum, and as the price for music approaches reasonable, and the distributors shed their DRM and other ugly additives to provide only wholesome organic mp3s, and independent distribution takes root, the population of pirates shrinks significantly. That benefits everybody.
If you’re still adamantly opposed to RIAA making a single cent off of your music purchases, there are solutions that don’t require you to download LimeWire and abandon your conscience. If you’re like me, though, perhaps retribution isn’t as important as getting the music you want with some degree of fairness. To that end, here are some thoughts on how to do it.
iTunes is good for organizing music
If you don’t mind the Safari virus, the TSRs, and the massive RAM footprint, iTunes is great for organizing your music. But that’s all. I had heard iTunes had gone DRM-free recently, but in fact only a subset of Apple’s iTunes store (iTunes Plus) provides DRM-free music, and as it turns out even those files are laced with your personal information, allowing Apple to trace a file back to you if it ends up on a P2P site. All the rest of the files on iTunes are still infested with DRM so restrictive that I can’t even purchase a song to use throughout my house and on my 2 mobile devices. Furthermore, Apple uses the AAC format, which despite ostensibly being higher quality is still largely incompatible with non-Apple software.
Independent distributors are my first choice for buying music
I love CDBaby. Their model is perfect. No DRM. No RIAA overhead. Reasonable prices. Perfect for sticking it to the man without screwing the musicians. Unfortunately they don’t have any music you’ve ever heard of. I’m making an effort to give their offering a chance before I buy something else. There’s a lot of great indy music available out there, but you still have to want to find it.
For big-label music, Amazon is the least evil
After a somewhat thorough investigation, I was surprised to find that Amazon actually offers a great product. You can download 256k mp3 files, DRM-free, for $0.99 each without any additional software. You can also install their download manager and get albums at a pretty good price (latest acquisition: Matthew Good Band’s Hospital Music for $8.99 – that’s about $0.60 per song). I was reluctant to install any new software but as far as I can tell the music downloader is harmless. It doesn’t have to run as a system process; instead, it is automatically loaded by the browser as a helper app for .AMZ files (which are converted to straight-up mp3s after the download completes). The downloader also manages file transfers from Amazon in case of an interruption, automatically creates folder structures for band and album names, and auto-populates your new music into iTunes. It’s clever and unintrusive, and it lets me leverage iTunes without any extra work.