EMI made some more history on Monday by announcing that it has finally conceded to the requests of its consumers to make its music available in digital form in the same condition as it does in physical form. That is to say that it will now allow digitised recordings into the market without copy protection in either physical or digital format.
The fact that Eric Nicoli could stand up and say that EMI listens to its customers and therefore is removing DRM, when he is standing on a stage next to his invited guest Mr Steve Jobs who only two months earlier had urged all the majors to dispense with DRM – is mere coincidence of course. The fact that EMI has little real knowledge of who the consumers of its music really are and only really knows who its retail customers (including iTunes) are, is not to be emphasised too much except as a great, as yet untapped opportunity.
The implications of this for EMI and the market as a whole are still to unravel. Some express absolute confidence that the three other majors will join in a matter of weeks, months, by year end – other proclaim that the film and video folk will follow shortly and that it’s all over bar the shouting.
I did get into quite a lot of trouble about 4 years ago for saying that DRM means Doesn’t Really Matter, but I am watching the current events with some bemusement.
My main reason for expressing that belief then has not changed because in my view, once digital distribution becomes fully consolidated – the issue for customers and for artists (and their label/manager/agencies or whatever they turn out to be) will not be about the furtive copying of their work. The issue will be about how to make their work visible and of interest to people – and about how to add value to the simple audio file.
The reality is that the audio file is no longer enough. In fact it never was enough to justify the price – that was why albums with extra stuff emerged into the analogue marketplace like artwork, sleevenotes, free funny hats, zips that opened and closed, and whatever other distractions could be added. The labels got themselves into all sorts of twists about this by the way when it came to singles and developed fantastic, elaborate rules like any single that was accompanied by a booklet with a staple in it would not be deemed eligble for the official single charts but a booklet without a staple was ok.
Now the race ought to be on for the digital staple, the digital sleeve notes, the band ringtone bundle, the screensaver, the wallpaper, the ringback tone. The race also ought to be on to establish a new digital format for music that can contain all this extra stuff in some standardised way that can be packaged and played back digitally in an engaging way for the consumer but also in a way that they can easily access.
But none of that came with the announcement from Eric Nicoli on Monday. Maybe it was implicit, but maybe it was irrelevant.
Maybe his focus is not really on how this market is going to be built and what is going to be economically viable in two or three years’ time. Instead, perhaps not surprisingly, EMI is more concerned about whether this move will write off forever the Warner wedding and in its place bring on the blushing new private equity bride whose trousseau might prove to be far more attractive to the senior management team at EMI than a Bronfman handshake could ever be.