By Michael Frondelli
London (April 13, 2007)–Early this month, music label EMI CEO, Eric Nicoli and Apple’s Steve Jobs announced the release of DRM free tracks and albums with improved sonic quality from the EMI catalog. They stressed interoperability as a key issue and that DRM (Digital Rights Management) free tracks resolve this problem. Consumers would be able to play EMI/iTunes tracks on any player, unlocking the gate to the iTunes “walled garden.”
Jobs justified the release of these unprotected titles with the comment that, “Consumers are already burning iTunes tracks to a CD and back to their computers.”
With the proverbial genie already out of the bottle why not make downloading easier and better for a premium?
The most encouraging aspect of this announcement was Nicoli’s sharing of EMI research that shows consumers will pay a premium for higher quality audio. While you can still purchase DRM protected 128Kbps AAC iTunes tracks for $.99, the EMI tracks will now be available in 256Kbps versions for an additional $.30, bringing the total price to $1.29. In the current GE (Good Enough) world of digital downloads, Eric’s statement is a revelation to all those who create content and audio products in the image and likeness of the sacrosanct quality of analog recording.
With over a century of combined experience, EMI, the parent company of Abbey Road and Capitol Records Studios, has long been an advocate of state-of-the-art audio reproduction. Both of these renowned recording facilities have had the opportunity of hosting world class, groundbreaking artists who push the envelope in recording technology.
Originally known as Electric and Music Industries, EMI developed the world’s first system for recording and playing stereo sound (with the brilliant scientist Alan Blumlein). However, EMI’s research and development was not limited to audio recording. Profits from Beatles record sales funded EMI’s Central Research Labs to invent the CAT Scan. Sir Godfrey N. Hounsfield, who conceived the idea in 1967 and worked for EMI from 1951 to 1986, won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Medicine for inventing computed axial tomography.
In theory, the EMI/Apple announcement could take the music industry back to the singles market of the 1960’s, where artists had to sell a significant number of singles before the record label could justify the expenditure of a full album. Not a bad idea, actually.
The EMI/Apple opportunity can only nurture this business model in this time of infancy for digital distribution. With quality recording technology within the financial reach of most musicians, the recording costs are minimal compared to the marketing and promotion budgets. This makes the timing seem perfect for the Warner Music singles download label, Cordless Recordings (www.cordless.com), founded and developed by music industry visionary, Jac Holzman and under the direction of Jason Fiber. Holzman, a long time champion of quality audio technology and a superb entrepreneur, could only embrace this step toward interoperability as a breakthrough to the consumer conscience and revenue.
The music industry will be watching closely to see how this new bold step by EMI will work, or if and when other major labels will get on board. The first question by a Sky News reporter at the EMI conference was, “When are the Beatles tracks going on and will they be DRM free? Jobs quipped, “I want to know that too” and Nicoli quickly responding, “We’re working on it”. I can’t imagine what kind of deal The Beatles will want, considering the deal U2 made for their Black iPod-probably something like iBeatles-but it would be a shame for The Beatles to be excluded from EMI.
Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of that long and winding road toward recovery for the music labels.
Independent Producer/Engineer Michael Frondelli was the General Manager for EMI’s Capitol Studios in Los Angeles for over a decade.