Pakman says Sony BMG offered the unprotected Jessica Simpson single to eMusic – and that he passed on the offer, partly because his customers aren’t interested in pop music, but mainly because he’d rather see the major labels experimenting with unprotected releases of older or more obscure tunes that don’t already have a huge built-in audience. “We asked Sony for Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue,’ which we did not get – but we think that would be a more interesting experiment. You can sell the more obscure kinds of records by virtue of making them interoperable. In fact, we have no hit product – we are the long tail.”
But Pakman says he expects to see the major labels releasing more of their catalog in unprotected MP3 format soon. “It’s very unlikely this year, but I think it’s possible that it could happen next year,” he says.
Todd Chanko, who follows digital rights management and intellectual property issues for technology research firm Jupiter Research, agrees with that timeline – but predicts that the music industry’s version of glasnost will extend only to certain, less-popular musical genres. “I think there will continue to be a market for certain kinds of music that is not DRM-wrapped, but if you’re talking about mainstream, large-audience, high-visibility pop material, it’s not going to happen,” says Chanko. “Demand is the number-one issue. One of the unfortunate by-products of the digital age is that it’s incredibly easy to make multiple perfect copies of an original, and artists, publishers, and record labels all have a right to strongly protect their intellectual property.”
But von Lohmann at the Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that DRM will gradually disappear across the music business – in part because the major labels and recording artists are tiring of iTunes’ dominance of the market. “The labels are pretty much locked into a system developed by Apple,” he says. “They can’t even raise prices beyond 99 cents per song – Steve Jobs simply said ‘No.’ They will eventually see that their only way to get leverage against Apple is to offer unprotected songs. “
Music buyers are accustomed to paying $15 or $20 for a CD, then having the freedom to do as they see fit with it, von Lohmann points out. He thinks the major labels are slowly realizing that taking away that freedom through DRM is “just a recipe for trouble – a recipe that actually encourages unauthorized free peer-to-peer file sharing. If you’re going to compete with free, you need to have more features, not less – including interoperability.”