Steve Jobs Thoughts on Music

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Go read Steve Jobs’s Thoughts on Music.

John Gruber tries to read between the lines of Steve Job's open letter:

Steve Jobs’s “Thoughts on Music” essay is really quite a good piece of writing, and an intriguing and aggressive strategic move on the part of Apple.

Is it a challenge to the major record labels? An answer to the increasingly hostile European governments (Norway, France, Germany) that are pressuring Apple to “open up” the iTunes Store? A message to the press to clarify Apple’s stance on DRM? A big fuck-you to Microsoft?

It is all of these things.

The main points are, in redux:

  • DRM protections were forced by the music industry upon those who sell music online
  • Because of the demands of the music industry, DRM technologies are extremely difficult to control even for a company that has an extensive control over the whole distribution-player chain, and impossible if that control is shared among lots of different actors — That's why Apple doesn't license its DRM technology “FairPlay”
  • Therefore, Microsoft does exactly the same as Apple, music sold from the Zune music store plays only on a Zune player — a big departure from the open model of licensing their DRM (“PlaysForSure”) to others
  • The music industry sells 90% of its production on DRM-free CDs
  • On average, only 3% of the music stored on an iPod comes from Apple’s music store. The rest comes from elsewhere (most notably from already owned CDs)
  • DRMs haven't worked to halt music piracy, and may never work as the technology itself is broken and fixed in a permanent cat-and-mouse game
  • The way out is to get back to what has been the model for decades: music that is free from DRM — The music industry will benefit from that, and Apple will switch to a DRM-free model in a heartbeat
  • Most complaints come from Europe, luckily Europe also owns the majority of the big four music giants — Job can’t be blamed for passing the hot potato back.

Steve Jobs’s message is that there are only two options: status quo, or no DRM. Apple wouldn't suffer at all from such a switch (they make their numbers on iPods, not music sold), but others would, or would simply disappear, such as those based on subscription. And in my book, that’s precisely the ugly hidden agenda behind DRM: prevent you to own your music and listen to it when, where and as much as you want, but force you to continuously pay for the privilege of listening to the same things over and over.

By the way, my iPod is shock-full of music ripped from the CDs I’ve bought, some of them 20 years ago. Do you think you’ll have a chance of being able to listen to your DRM-locked music 20 years from now? Me neither.

To finish on a positive glimpse of what a good online music shop can look like, just go see Linn Records. They have an outstanding catalog for lovers of classical, baroque and jazz, and they sell DRM-free music in different formats, including CD-quality downloads. Those guys know how to satisfy the audiophiles (my hifi equipment comes from Linn).