A couple weeks ago, EMI announced that it will begin offering digital-rights-management-free tracks in MP3, AAC, and WMA format.
Apple jumped on the announcement, immediately confirming that it will sell such tracks on iTunes.
Of course, they'll charge 30 percent more for them — $1.29 per track instead of 99 cents — and you can "upgrade" your existing purchases for the 30-cent difference.
Curiously, nobody asked EMI if the musicians well get 30 percent more money from these purchases (it's all about supporting the artists, right?), but I'm guessing they won't.
I always thought 99 cents per track was a rip-off: It's what you pay for music on CD, which is often criticized for an outrageous markup.
The Recording Industry Association of America claims the markup is necessary because the albums that sell well pay for the printing, advertising, in-store placement and other costs associated with CDs that don't sell well.
In the world of digital downloads, music that doesn't sell doesn't cost any manufacturing or distribution money, so why do the winners pay for the losers there, too?
Of course, they're bumping up the anemic 128k bitrate on iTunes songs to 256k on these unprotected tracks, so at least there's that.
A few days later, a Microsoft rep on the Zune team, Katy Asher, said, "The EMI announcement on Monday was not exclusive to Apple. Consumers have made it clear that unprotected music is something they want. We plan on offering it to them as soon as our label partners are comfortable with it."
She said Microsoft has been talking with EMI and other record labels "for some time now" about offering unprotected music on its Zune players in an effort to meet the needs of its customers.
That's not exactly a formal announcement of DRM-free music on the Zune marketplace, but it's about as close as you can get.
I'm willing to bet it'll start off with EMI tracks and a bunch of indie labels. Zune songs are already sampled at a bitrate higher than 128k, but there's no telling whether they'll go higher than the 192k already in use.
That's all good, right? Except for the price, that is, and my suspicion that artists aren't going to see any more money from these higher-priced tracks.
Finally we have some "fair use"-compliant downloads from a major record label. Hooray for the death of DRM!
Except it's not the death of lock-out content.
I read an interesting editorial recently about how awful the structure of "Guitar Hero II" is.
The game advertises 70 songs and calls out some big hits by name, but you can't play them when you buy the game.
First, you have to beat the first "set" of five songs, plus an encore, to unlock the next set of five.
If you're an unskilled player, you might never get to play "Free Bird" or "Hangar 18." You have to suffer through Heart if you want to play Stray Cats.
That sort of makes sense for the "Career" mode, but in order to play these songs in "Practice" or "Free Play" mode, you have to first unlock them in "Career" mode.
It's not uncommon for games to be structured this way. What the game developers call "rewarding players" is actually just making them earn what they paid for from the start.
There's a balancing act here: You want to give players substantial, meaningful rewards for doing well, but you don't want to make them suffer through boring or unwanted parts of the game to get to the "good stuff."
And of course, you don't want players who aren't really good to miss out on any of that costly content you built for the game.
Clearly, the trend emerging now is toward a less locked-down future. One of the big RIAA labels is offering a path — albeit not a well-priced one — to music that you can more easily move around to different devices.
Not all games are as draconian as "Guitar Hero" when it comes to earning the content you just paid $60 for, either.
"Project Gotham Racing 3," for example, is a typical race game in many ways. You earn money for winning races, and then you can spend that money to buy ever more powerful and exotic cars.
But the developers skipped the low-end Ford Escorts of the automotive world, so even the starting cars are quite good.
More importantly, the best cars in the game are pretty easily obtainable, even on the easiest difficultly levels, just by racing some pretty easy races. An unskilled player can actually buy that Ferrari Enzo.
You have to be good and play for a while to earn enough money to buy all the cars, but you can pick the ones you really want and go after those without much hassle.
So the carrot-on-a-stick reward system is in place, but you never get the impression that you paid for a game with 80 cars and you don't really get 80 cars unless you devote your life to it.
I worry about this approaching future that emphasizes user choice and freedom to use what you bought the way you want, though.
The large companies that make and control all this digital content (whether it's games, movies, music, or electronic books) want to watch the purse strings.
I'm reminded of Nikola Tesla's (played by David Bowie) line in "The Prestige," where magician Robert Angier wants him to build a matter-transportation machine (it makes sense when you watch the film).
He says, "Have you considered the cost of such a machine?"
Angiers replies, "Price is not an object."
Tesla deadpans, "Perhaps not, but have you considered the cost?"
We're getting so excited over DRM-free music from EMI that we're losing sight of the fact that they're overcharging us for it.
They're raising the price from the already-unacceptable buck-a-track that has become industry standard.
Apple actually sells fewer than two songs per month per iPod user, when you divide their song sales by iPods sold and the number of years on the market.
There are tons of iPod owners, but they're not rushing out to buy songs at a buck a track. They're downloading or ripping songs for less than that, and filling up their music players that way.
The record industry had an opportunity to increase the number of legitimate digital song downloads by offering better quality and less restrictive DRM-free formats without raising the price, but it didn't.
It put a price on the fair use that has been our right all along — and that price is 30 percent higher than the locked-down version.
Customers are demanding choice and freedom, and corporations are going to give it to us. After all, it's going to result in sales, and in this day and age, your company has to grow to be successful.
It doesn't matter if you make billions of dollars a quarter; if your company isn't growing, the stock falls.
More DRM-free music and video will float our way over time, game developers will give us more access to play more of the game the way we choose to, and so on.
In our excitement over finally getting our rights back, we may have overlooked the cost of our victory.
In a world where the pricing of online music, movies, and games has kept the market relatively small (compared with store-bought goods), our freedom is coming with a price hike.
Our digital rights have had a price put on them by the very people who sought to take them away from us in the first place.
We have to do more than just lobby for the freedom to use our digital content in the way we choose. We have to lobby for fair prices.
We have to see those "Guitar Hero II" song packs for the Xbox 360, where they want $6.25 for a pack of three songs, and say "no way, Jose."
We have to look at the 30 percent price hike for DRM-free music on iTunes say "I'm not paying more for what I should have had in the first place." Or at the very least, "I want proof that the artist gets 30 percent more from this purchase."
And when the corporations that control this content come back to us and say "gamers don't want to buy games piecemeal to customize their experience" or "DRM-free music doesn't make any money for anyone," we need to stand up and let them know that it's the prices, not the concept, we object to.
We need to make it clear, right now while digital distribution is still in its early stages, that we want and demand our freedom, but we're not happy with the cost they've attached to it.