I decided to try an experiment today: buying music the way I think it should be done. The reason it was an experiment is that it's very, very hard to find ways to do this. Here are the founding principles, the realities of music in the early 21st century.
(This is a long article, so let's step inside, shall we?)
1. Store-bought CDs suck.
Store-bought CDs suck for two reasons. First, more and more of them are crippled and designed not to play in, or even to DAMAGE, computers, because the Recording Industry Association of America considers their profits more important than your right to use what you paid for in whatever way you want. You all know this and there's no need to elaborate; the only people who don't know that the RIAA is deeply, inherently evil are the people who work there, and even a lot of them are finally beginning to realize that.
Second, the RIAA are also thieves and suck off some approaching-100%-percentage of the money from CDs. They toss a couple of pennies to the artist and use the rest to buy themselves yachts, vacations, and expensive lawyers to sue grandmothers and 12-year-olds with. They are a cartel in every sense of the word. Buying CDs from stores supports the RIAA. The RIAA must (and will, eventually) die. Read Courtney Love Does The Math if you need a brush-up.
2. DRM sucks.
No more iTunes store for me. I have spent my last penny there and I regret every penny I ever spent buying music on iTunes. Probably around $150 all told. That's music that I've basically lost, because it will only play in iTunes and on iPods. Sure, I can burn a CD and then re-rip to mp3, losing some audio fidelity along the way, and that's what I've done, but (a) it's a pain and (b) it's lossy. Now that I've decided I don't want to be married to iTunes for the rest of my life, or Apple for that matter, I am no longer spending money on any music with DRM. The funniest tech story of the year so far is how DRM is so fucked up that Microsoft's new "Zune" player can't even play Microsoft's own fucking "Plays For Sure" DRM from the MSN store. If you bought DRM'ed music from MSN (and you can't buy any other kind), you can just throw it away and buy it again if you're getting a Zune.
Everybody with a brain realizes this game is over. No more DRM.
3. If you don't give people an easy way to buy music reasonably, they WILL steal it.
It's at the point where downloading music is safer than buying it. Downloaded music is free of digital restrictions, and will play on anything. This is what people want. So you'd think there would be industry leaping up to sell it, wouldn't you? The fact that there isn't just goes to show how powerful and scary the RIAA is. Word is that Universal now demands a tax from Microsoft on every Zune sold, assuming that they're just going to be used for piracy, and rumors are that as soon as their present contract with Apple is up, they'll be demanding it from them as part of new conditions as well. It's just fucking unbelievable.
I was all set to buy Bruce Springsteen's "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" until I found out that yes, it's DRM'ed out the ass. Well, guess what, Bruce? I'm not fucking buying it. Why would you expect me to? If it wasn't crippled, I would have bought it, but since it is, I'll get it some other way. You could have had my money, but now you don't get it.
I don't get it either.
A few pinpoints of enlightenment
So no more buying major-label CDs in store, and no more buying DRMed music of any kind. What's left?
Well, not much. Mostly brave independent artists and small independent labels who have the foresight to realize that consumers are tired of being screwed, and that treating your customers fairly is good business practice, and that being hostile to them and pissing them off isn't. There aren't many of these guys.
eMusic is pretty close to a good thing; they sell DRM-free mp3s at very reasonable prices. The problem there is that they only have a subscription model, currently where you pay ten bucks a month for up to 40 tracks, but any tracks you don't download go POOF at the end of the month and you lose your money. You can't just go and buy 5 tracks. So eMusic is out until/unless they allow people to buy only as much as they want. Nice try, guys, you're really close. Fix this situation and you'lll be golden.
Magnatune has the model right. They sell DRM-free mp3s AND lossless, high-quality audio (FLAC / OGG / etc) for audiophiles who don't want to lose fidelity. They even allow you to pay what you think a CD is worth (with an $8 minimum and $18 maximum currently). You can listen to a whole CD before you buy, it, even in high fidelity. It's perfect as a model. The only problem is that they don't have anything I like, so far – obscure artists I've never heard of and haven't been blown away by in admittedly limited sampling (so far). But I would really love to see them succeed. They're the closest I've seen yet to the right thing.
Then you have some artists who decide to set up their own stores online and sell their stuff directly. So today's plunge was with Gillian Welch, whose store is here. Especially since she wrote a song complaining about piracy, I wanted to put a few bucks in her pocket and show that if she provided a way for people to get what they want without stealing it, they will.
Her store allows you to buy DRM-free MP3s for about $10 for a CD, or lossless FLAC for $13. I opted for FLAC because I wanted to hear every little nuance of her voice, and I figured three bucks more wasn't unreasonable given that the file sizes are about ten times as much.
Checkout was simple; I didn't have to create an account. Just paid with the credit card and got a link to download. The download terms were a little scary – if there was a problem and the download got interrupted, I'd have to contact customer service for another download link, because they expire as soon as they're used. I was only pulling about 120k/sec over my cable line, which is capable of 800k/sec, so their throughput wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible either. The album was about 350mb compressed, and it took around 45 minutes to download.
Then I had to convert it from FLAC to MP3 (after carefully storing the original FLAC files so I could re-rip them later or burn a CD), because the players I use (Audion and yes, still iTunes) don't understand FLAC. This, however, is not Gillian's fault or her store's; it's just a shortcoming in OSX. FLAC is a good format. I converted the files to MP3 with xLD, a free download that wasn't too hard to deal with.
The result? The first music-buying experience I feel good about in a long time. I do think $13 is a bit steep – that's modeled on CD pricing, which has always been a rip-off – but I was willing to do it to encourage them to do more of it. I'd like to see the price of a CD drop to about $5, which feels right, and half of that should go to the artist. Once we cut out all the bloodsucking middlemen at the RIAA who do nothing but add restrictions and cost, that should be a cinch. Gillian got way more of my money than she would have if I had bought the CD at the store (although the site doesn't specify how much). I got good-quality files I can burn a full-quality CD with, and they're not locked into any format that's going to go away. No restrictions on what I can do with it. I feel good, the artist gets more money, everybody wins except the lawyers.
This is the way it's GOING to go because nothing else makes any sense. It might take another 20 years to get there. But this is where it's headed and I'm on the leading edge with a lot of other smart and sensible people. The RIAA and their ilk will get dragged foreward kicking and screaming and litigating with everything they've got to keep their 1800s business model, irrevocably focused around the fundamentally irrelevant concept of material scarcity, alive for as long as they can. But it will die. And you should stop helping them.
Fellow citizens: Don't buy any DRM'ed music. You are being stupid if you do, and you will have no-one to blame but yourself when it bites you and some device says you're not allowed to play the music you paid for (and it will).
Arists and independent labels: sell people DRM-free files at a reasonable price. They will buy them, AND they will think highly of you. Everybody wins.
RIAA: enjoy your slow death. And, fuck you.
I'd like to review the actual album, but I can't, because I haven't managed to get past the first track in about two hours of listening. "Orphan Girl" is breaking my heart. An orphan's lament, simple (like all the best music) and achingly beautiful and filled with poignant truth. I just keep playing it. I even hooked up my gee-tar and played along with it (simple G / D / C). It kills me. Even if I hate the rest of it (which I doubt), my $13 was well spent.