Music biz to Apple: thanks for saving our necks. Screw you! And come to think of it, screw music fans too!

I’m hoping that part of Steve Jobs’ keynote on Tuesday will be the news that all iTunes music is going to become DRM-free, but I’m not holding my breath. The big four major labels have all made Damascene conversions to the cause of unprotected music downloads, but they want to sell them through Amazon, not Apple.

The official reason for this is that the majors are worried about Apple’s dominance of digital music. But the real reason is that they want you to pay more for your downloads.

To understand this, we need a quick bit of time travel. In the bad old days – a few years ago – there were loads of digital download shops, and they were all shite. It wasn’t that the music didn’t work on iPods, although that was a pain. It was that the rights you got for your cash varied from label to label, artist to artist, track to track. Some downloads could be burned to CD. Most couldn’t. Some downloads could be transferred to your portable player (provided it was a Windows Media one). Most couldn’t. Actually working out what rights each individual download came with took longer than it had taken the artists to learn their instruments, write the songs and get them recorded.

It was a bloody mess, and punters – quite rightly – stayed away in their millions.

Enter Apple and the iTunes music store. Where there was confusion, iTunes offered simplicity. Yes, the tracks were copy protected – the record labels wouldn’t let Apple sell the tracks otherwise – but the protection was consistent, and so were the prices. You knew that a download cost X, could be played on X machines, could be copied to your iPod as many times as you like, and could be burned to CD.

Punters – quite rightly – shopped in their millions.

The difference between iTunes and everybody else was really, really simple. The other download services’ terms were dictated by the record labels, who didn’t give a toss whether the result was confusing or punter-unfriendly. iTunes, on the other hand, was more interested in making things simple for you and I.

It turns out that if you treat music buyers with a modicum of respect, they buy music. Who knew?

So what’s happening now? Apple has been banging the anti-protection drum for a while, and the labels have belatedly come to realise that Steve Jobs’ “thoughts on music” open letter – basically, DRM is shite and alienates legitimate punters – was bang on. But they also reckon that Apple has got too big for its boots, so while they’ve embraced DRM-free downloads they aren’t letting Apple get them.

A bit part of this is trying to knock Apple down a peg and show Steve Jobs who’s boss (which is ironic, as it’s the labels’ insistence on DRM that’s created the iTunes/iPod lock-in that helped make iTunes such a big deal). But more than that, it’s because the labels hate the idea of fixed prices for music. The idea that a new song is 79p and an old song is 79p appalls them, and if Apple is the only game in town then that’s what they’re stuck with. Cut Apple out of the equation, though, and they can start varying pricing.

And ultimately that’s what this is all about. Despite the massively reduced production costs of downloads, despite the massively reduced distribution costs, despite the record contracts that mean artists get a pittance from download sales, despite the Long Tail that means selling lots of old records can mean healthy profits, what the labels really want is to put the price of music back up again.

Hands up anyone who thinks variable pricing means new tracks will stay at the same price while old stuff gets cheaper?

Update, 15/1: the New York Times goes into this in some detail.Икони