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Breaking the Chains

Nice weather we’ve been having! Last month our Sell Your Music Online panel had to bail out on the monthly CRUMBS Night Out at the Linda Norris Auditorium. It was the night of what will forever be known as The Great Ice Storm of 2008—need I say more?

But mourn not, we’re got the old team back together for the January edition of CRUMBS Night Out, so come out to the Linda (339 Central Ave., Albany) next Thursday (Jan. 22) and hear a set from the always-intriguing Scientific Maps (myspace.com/scientificmaps) at 7 PM, followed by the panel—including moi, jazz god Brian Patneaude, and the mandolinear digi-guru Matthew Loiacono—explaining what you need to know about getting your tunage up and out on the Internet. It’s free. My trusty co-host Paul Czech won’t be there because he’s attending the big MIDEM music conference on the French Riviera, which he’ll be reporting about at the February CRUMBS session.

Speaking of Matthew Loiacono, you should know that he’s publishing a weekly e-newsletter, The Weekly Wahhh, full of helpful hints about the world of Internet music. Matthew knows as much about this stuff as anybody anywhere; he knows what happened five minutes ago and has a pretty good idea of what’s gonna happen tomorrow. You can sign up for the newsletter at his Web site, www.heartstack.com.

The big news this week is that Apple’s iTunes store is changing a couple of its more controversial aspects, and all for the better. First, it’s finally ditching the DRM (digital rights management) goo that encumbered all of the music it was selling. Apple’s DRM, which the major labels apparently forced Apple to stick on the music, restricted how many devices you could put your music on. Say you replace your MP3 player, get a new phone, stick your music on a new laptop or storage disk—at some point your iTunes music will just quit on you, and won’t load up on any new devices.

DRM is universally and vociferously hated by folks like me, but it’s not clear it’s ever really bothered normal people much. Over a year ago, Amazon launched their DRM-free MP3 store to a lot of fanfare in the technorati press, but it hasn’t affected iTunes’ market domination at all. Huh. What explains this? I can’t imagine people just don’t care that their music is tethered, I prefer to think that people just don’t know yet that their expensive digital music collections have little time-bombs in them, and not enough time has gone by for the DRM to click in. We’ll see. Maybe.

More immediate important changes to the iTunes store is the goosing of the files, which will now be offered at a higher quality 256kbps, which will take up more room on your iPod but will sound much, much better than your old 128’s or 192’s.

Finally, something that’s gonna change online music selling forever: Apple’s finally ditching the uniform 99-cents-per-track pricing, and introducing a three-tiered price structure. Labels and artists selling on iTunes will be allowed to sell tracks at 69 cents, 99 cents, or $1.29; expect back-catalog tracks to go for the lower price and big hits to go for the higher. Or something like that. I’m guessing we’ll also see an uptick in the number of free tracks and of targeted and limited price reductions (like “get the new M.I.A. track for 69 cents for the next hour”) as well.

I think this last move will open the floodgates to innovative pricing across all of the music-sales platforms on the Web; lots of online musicians have been fooling around with different price-points (including pay-what-you-will “tip jars”) for a couple of years, and that only makes sense. If you wanna get all economic about it there’s no good reason why all tracks should be the same price: you don’t value all music tracks equally, supply and demand is what it is and, the marginal cost of one more track is right around zero.

Anybody see Lawrence Lessig on Colbert last week? He was pretty good parrying-wise, infinitely better than fellow copy-leftist John Perry Barlow’s clueless performance last year. But the appearance highlighted how hard these things are to talk about, and how much Big Media has muddied the waters of rational discourse. Colbert’s ridiculous proclamations, like “copyright is forever” and his anti-remix rants (Colbert, in fact, has been at the forefront of encouraging and posting remixes of his own show) simply aren’t susceptible to witty, cutting repartee. Or maybe Lessig just isn’t equipped to deliver the verbal body-slam that counts as a score on Colbert.

That being said, Colbert did seem, at least to me, especially aggressive and unforgiving. Whether he was intent on putting Lessig through his paces, or talking tough to satisfy his bosses at Viacom, who knows? I’d like to think he’s immune to that sort of thing. Maybe not.

—Paul Rapp


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