The Best Things in Life Are DRM-Free

So the iTunes Store will be DRM-free. That’s not big news. No, the big news is that the iTunes Store is also going to 256kbps, and that, with variable pricing, many songs are going to 69 cents. With these changes, iTunes will leapfrog past Amazon’s (also DRM-free) MP3 Store in quality and price.

The message is: don’t buy music. The price is falling, and it’s falling fast. It’s not just the sticker price, either: with higher bitrates and no DRM, the annoyance surcharge is also falling. Sure you can buy now at a bargain compared with last year, but next year’s bargains are likely to be even better. Wait.

Think of it like the housing market. The record companies are sitting on an inventory of dilapidated mansions. Sure, they could try to wait for the end of the the bad times, but you can’t eat mansions. The record companies need to do whatever it takes to keep from going out of business now, and if that means dropping the price to keep the inventory moving, so be it. Trouble is, all the other record companies are also trying to survive, and they have their own mansions to move. The rational buyer, like Cadmus, should sit this one out.

I’d say there’s a better than even chance that within the next five years, almost all recorded pop music becomes free. This enormous overhang of recordings will have very interesting effects on contemporary creativity. Existing music is both a complement to and a substitute for new music. We’ll see more Girl Talks: musicians who take inspiration from an insanely rich knowledge of what’s come before. But on the other hand, why should you pay for this month’s hit single when you can get last month’s, which sounds almost the same, for zilch?