EMI, one of the largest music labels in the world, today announced higher quality, DRM free, music for just $1.29 per download. Standard MP3 downloads are usually encoded at 128 kbps, but the new premium quality downloads will be twice the quality, at 256 kbps. By comparison, CD quality is around 320 kbps. The big news is that by dropping DRM the music can be used on any music player and copied to any device. TechMeme has lots of blog posts on the subject. Here is my short analysis.
DRM (Digital Rights Management) is a technology that can be "wrapped" around a digital file. It allows the owner to control how the file is used. For example, DRM could restrict copying, or it could restrict the number of times the file could be accessed, or it could cause the file to expire after a certain time period. Apple has it's own proprietary DRM system for the iPod. Microsoft, Sony, and others have their own DRM systems as well. The various DRM systems only work with specific devices that have special software to decode the DRM. This has caused lots of incompatibility issues.
EMI has addressed both issues; premium quality sound, and DRM free usage, all for the reasonable price of $1.29. EMI is making their entire music catalog available under the new system, but will continue to offer the existing 128 kbps, DRM version for $.99.
EMI will make the new music available in all the popular formats; AAC, WMA, MP3, and others, and the music can be sold through any of the music retailers including Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and others. The other music publishers will be under pressure to follow EMI's lead if this new initiative is as successful as expected.
Napster proposed a similar system more than 7 years ago. We suggested free file sharing of 56 kbps files that were good enough for "sampling" and probably analogous to AM radio quality sound. We would offer higher quality versions in 256 kbps format for sale at $1.00 per download. This way Napster could continue to offer free downloads of low quality files and sell high quality music. The Napster system could filter out other bit rate files so only 56 kbps files were available for free download. It was the best of both worlds. Sadly, we were ahead of our time and the idea never had a chance. For an inside look at Napster and what we tried to do, see "How Napster Changed the World - A look back 7 years later".