A couple of days ago, when I posted this comment on the Christian Science Monitor’s article on DRM and hi-fi music downloads, I also sent an e-mail off to the Editors.  I expected my note to dissapear into the great bit bucket in the sky, and certainly the Monitor would have been entirely justified in reading my e-mail, deleting it, and then moving on to deal with more important matters.  But instead, I was pleasantly surprised to get an e-mail this morning from Stephen Humphries, the Weekend Section Editor, and we exchanged a few e-mails.  He had passed my concern on to Brian Wise, the author of the piece in question, who said:

“As for the e-mail from your reader, I see his point: there are in theory ways to present music with DRM and also without compression. However, because of the way Apple has bundled the two, you really won’t see one without the other in the marketplace. Thus when EMI decided to drop DRM recently, the audio files were suddenly at a much higher bit rate and also much larger sizes. Conversely, retailers like eMusic or Magnatune don’t use DRM and also don’t use compression. I asked several of my sources about that point and they all agreed that the link is pretty solid. Hope that helps…”

That’s a pretty reasonable point.  As long as the industry essentially always ties DRM to high fidelity audio and vice versa, the rise of non-DRM files does mean increased availability of high quality downloadable music, which is indeed good news for audiophiles of all stripes.  While I would have preferred  clarity in the original piece that DRM isn’t itself the problem, Wise’s basic thesis seems valid.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is what Humphries had to say about CSM’s coverage of classical music:

“We are trying to boost our coverage of classical music by looking for fresh trends and new developments in that area of music. We’re also going to be running occasional roundup reviews of recent classical music releases, too.”

Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see how successfully they deliver, but in light of the recent news about the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, this sounds very promising.

5 Responses to “CSM Stands Up?”
  1. DJA says:

    How is that a in any way reasonable point? Wise seems to not understand what the word “compression” means, and he’s also got a pretty shaky grasp of “correlation” versus “causation.”

    eMusic’s sells DRM-free MP3′s, but they are, you know, MP3′s, which are by definition compressed. EMI decided to raise the bitrate of its DRM-free offerings, but they are still compressed — they’re just not compressed as much. And they rasied the bitrate because they wanted to be able to charge more for DRM-free tracks, and figured — rightly, I think — that nobody would pay $0.30 more for the exact same audio quality, but without the DRM. But that’s a marketing decision, not a technological one.

    No one is selling lossless audio online (yet). But if they did, it might well contain DRM restrictions. Or it might not. But both options are equally possible.

  2. On newspapers cutting back on coverage of the arts: this is just one more sign that printed media is heading for extinction. CSM may try running counter to the trend, but the economics of newspaper publishing is on the wrong side of history in a digitally networked age.

  3. Darcy– I appreciate what you’re saying, and that’s what my basic objection was and still is: The way he presents his thesis is somewhat misleading in that he implies that DRM has a technological causal relationship to fidelity, and he uses an inaccurate definition of “compressed.” But if the industry decides, as it so far seems to have done, that whenever it sells DRM tracks it will use the standard bitrate and when it sells non-DRM tracks it will raise the bitrate to justify the higher prices it charges for non-DRM, the industry is itself creating a direct correlation which can be used to make predictions. Many stores want to remove DRM, and given that they are all increasing the fidelity of the tracks they sell without DRM as part of their marketing strategy, the fall of DRM is in fact good for people who want to be able to download higher quality files. The causal relationship is not technological, it’s market driven, and so of course the paradigm could change in the future, but for now that relationship does seem to exist.

    Also, it’s not true that nobody’s selling lossless audio online — Magnatune sells both FLAC compressed files and WAV files, both without DRM. Given that Apple his a proprietary lossless compression codec which is supported by iPod, I would guess they’re not far from selling ALAC files themselves, and their business model seems strongly weighted toward the bundling of non-DRM and hi fidelity files.

    Paul — Your point about the sea change in the print media market is true, but my understanding is that the CSM has actually been at the forefront of changing their business model for the new era. According to Wikipedia, “The Monitor was one of the first newspapers to put its text online (in 1996), and also one of the first to launch a PDF edition (in 2001). It was also an early pioneer of RSS feeds.”

  4. DJA says:

    But if the industry decides, as it so far seems to have done, that whenever it sells DRM tracks it will use the standard bitrate and when it sells non-DRM tracks it will raise the bitrate to justify the higher prices it charges for non-DRM, the industry is itself creating a direct correlation which can be used to make predictions.

    If that’s really a trend, it’s not yet clear to me. For instance, eMusic has always been DRM-free, and they’re not charging a premium for that — in fact, eMusic tracks are the least expensive of any online option (because of the particularities of their subscription model.)

    I didn’t know about Magnatune — I’ll have to check it out. But I think Apple is still a long way away from selling Apple Lossless tracks from the iTunes store, especially considering they only just now introduced the “hi-fi, DRM-free” 256 kbps option and won’t want to do anything in the foreseeable future to make that format look less attractive. I do agree that Apple has set a precedent here, but keep in mind it’s still just an experiment. So far, only EMI is on board and nobody knows how successfully the 256 kbps DRM-free format will be for them. If sales are anemic, I can easily see the pendulum swinging back the other way.

  5. david toub says:

    Until and unless bandwidth for the average user improves dramatically, downloadable AIFF or WAV or even Apple Lossless files will be a niche at best. The whole reason downloads took off was because of the development of the MP3 codec. The whole rationale for BitTorrent is that very large files are just too big to reliably and promptly download, and even BT takes time, depending on how many seeders are out there.

    And big deal—studies have shown that few (very few) people out there can distinguish between 256 kpbs and 128 kpbs, all things being equal. And even if one downloads an AIFF (or just dumps it on an iPod from a CD), I have yet to be able to tell the difference from a MP3 of the same thing using pretty good in-ear headphones.

    BTW, CSM = cigarette smoking man (from the X-files, the best TV drama ever, if you discount everything after season 4…)

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