Digital music: still shit

Record labels are losing their battle with digital piracy as the number of people who regularly download songs legally falls back, research will claim today.

That’s in the UK where, by an incredible coincidence, the overwhelming majority of digital music is still sold with DRM.

Elsewhere in the Guardian, in a piece by Tim Anderson:

“The industry has finally been able to get some hard data about how removing DRM restrictions from legitimately purchased tracks affects piracy,” says Bill Rosenplatt, DRM specialist and president of GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies. “The statistics show that there’s no effect on piracy.”

So if people aren’t downloading legally, what are they doing? Surprise!

While 28% of music fans have paid to download music from a legal download store such as iTunes or 7 Digital, just as many have tried downloading from an illegal filesharing site.

Tellingly, 22% have carried on sharing files illegally, but only 14% have continued to download tracks from legal sites.

As ever, you can use a single album to demonstrate the problem. Let’s take Madonna’s Hard Candy, the Deluxe version with three remixes tacked on the end.

  • Full quality CD version from Tesco, Amazon etc (without remixes) – £8.93 to £8.99
  • DRMed, standard quality iTunes with a digital booklet – £9.99
  • DRMed, unknown bitrate WMAs from Tesco Digital – £10.97
  • DRM-free, 256Kbps MP3s from 7 Digital with a digital booklet – £10.99
  • DRM-free, 320Kbps MP3s from torrents with scans of the CD artwork – nowt

True, the CD version doesn’t include the remixes – or “filler”, as it probably should be called – but given that digital is much cheaper to produce than the physical version, charging eleven quid for a download with a couple of extra mixes makes me want to torrent the Madonna album out of sheer spite. And I don’t even like Madonna.

In the UK, digital music is all over the place. Most music is still protected WMA (Windows) or AAC (iTunes), and while unprotected music is beginning to go mainstream it’s far from perfect. iTunes Plus is still being conspiciously ignored by most of the labels. Tesco now offers MP3s (of unspecified bitrate), but its selection runs to just 40 albums, most of them older than the universe. Play.com has a better selection at £6.99 for unprotected albums (of variable quality – most are 320Kbps, but some are 192), but there are huge gaps in the catalogue and £6.99 is still rather expensive for something whose manufacturing cost is essentially zero. Nice to see Half Man Half Biscuit in there, mind you.

If digital music was some new-fangled technology then the current mess would be forgivable, but it’s nine years since Napster demonstrated the power of P2P for distributing music, eight years since AllofMP3.com suggested an alternative, and seven years since the birth of Bittorrent and iTunes.

So why on earth is digital music still a mess? Former A&R man John Niven may have the answer.

Today you can walk into Asda or Tesco and pick up an LP for seven or eight quid. Back in the mid- to late nineties a new release routinely cost £12 to £15 – nearly £30 in today’s money. Factor in manufacturing costs of a few pence per unit and a royalty rate to the artist of about a quid and you’re have a profit margin to make Third World sweatshop owners wince.

It seemed that the artificially inflated good times would roll for ever.