Order In the Plex Now

The Album Version

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

I wanted to buy two albums.

The new Arcade Fire. And the new Ry Cooder.

I would mostly be listening to these in the iTunes ecosystem. So the choice, really, was to buy them on iTunes or buy a CD somewhere. I have Amazon Prime, so the price I pay for CDs on Amazon doesn’t involve shipping costs, and it’s often the best available price. I also very much prefer to have my songs free of DRM. As a result, I generally buy physical CDs and rip them. I do buy individual tracks on iTunes, and vow to burn them immediately on CD for backup, but don’t always get around to it.

Right now, all iTunes songs have DRM, so I went with Amazon. The price for the Arcade Fire was $9.99, same as iTunes. The Ry Cooder was $14.99, which cost two dollars more than iTunes. But getting the packaging and freedom was certainly worth it.

But what about when iTunes drops DRM? My guess is that the Arcade Fire record, distributed by an indie label, will be pretty quick to follow EMI. Ry Cooder is on Nonesuch, a branch of Warner Records, led by DRM hawk Edgar Bronfman, so that probably won’t happen with Ry. But say both were selling without DRM, and the higher sound quality that the new format offers. Would my behavior be different?

Well, not really. Unless I were desperate to hear Arcade Fire this minute, I would get the CD for the same price. Better value. It’s already backed up, and I get all the programming. iTunes includes a booklet with the album, but I’d have to print it out myself. The CD also has somewhat better sound quality than even the new format, though I’m not sure I’d really notice.

With the Ry Cooder album, I would save a couple of bucks with iTunes. But for a couple of dollars, I get the package, a pre-burned CD, and that bit of extra quality. So I’d spring for it. The only extra work I do is rip it.

On one hand, the record labels might be happy that I’m buying CDs. But wait a minute. Isn’t it much cheaper for them if I buy on iTunes? They get two thirds of that money. I’m sure they don’t get that much of the price I pay on Amazon. Also, there are virtually no expenses when I buy from iTunes. No pressing, printing, warehousing, shipping, and so on. And no danger of returns. It’s a much much MUCH better deal for them. So much more that if they had a significantly lower price, it would still be better for the labels to get me to buy digitally.

What’s more, at these price points, even people like me, who aren’t living on student budgets, are thinking twice before we buy albums. I BUY at least one album a month, even though I know how to get albums for free on the Internet. So I am a great customer for the music industry. Would I buy more if the price were half as much? I think so. What if the price were a quarter as much? Certainly. A LOT more. There probably is a price point where someone could simply mention an interesting album to me and I would buy it without knowing much more about it. I would probably even fill out a form with artists I love, with the understanding that when those artists came out with new stuff, there would be automatic downloads and charges to my account. As it is now, every time even someone whose music I adore, like Ry Cooder, has a new CD, I go through at least a brief thought process and check of the reviews before I buy. What if, during that process, I’m at a friend’s house and that friend already has the CD? My laptop is in my backpack. Would I borrow the disk for five minutes and get a free copy?

You get the idea. But the labels don’t. Their fear is that if they sell music for less money, people will think that music has less value. But that’s the irony. The advent of digital music has indeed made music less valuable, not in terms of how much we might enjoy it, but in terms of pricing. Pricing depends on scarcity, and scarcity will never be part of the equation in the music industry again. The obvious path for the labels is to accept abundance, and seize on it, making abundance part of our music experience.

Getting rid of DRM is only step one in this process. The next obvious step is lowering the price, so it’s drastically more convinient to get lots of music legally than it is to ferret it out from the infringing world.

Instead, they raised the price. Sigh.

Leave a comment