There are two predominant schools of thought when it comes to distributing music online. One side advocates a steady and measured deployment of titles with careful command and control of how and where songs are sold; and in what format. In bed with only a few partners, this Cautious Advocate sells exclusivity to their distribution partners and negotiates aggressively on fees and revenue sharing (even at times trying to wrangle for a royalty fee from the sale of hardware that can play their music). To police their position and defend their partnerships, this camp uses Digital Rights Management technologies to encrypt songs. They’re deathly concerned about piracy. They’re also vigilantly concerned about controlling access to their products. If a partner won’t meet their terms, they’ll walk away or threaten too. They rule with an iron fist.
In stark contrast, a second approach, which is wholly in the minority, carpet-bombs. Instead of trying to leverage revenue from few select distributors (and a theoretically more manageable distribution chain), this Open Advocate looks to make their products ubiquitous. They are the open-source model of music distribution. To the Open Advocate, it almost doesn’t matter where their wares are sold – from major sites all the way down to kids with lemonade stands, anything that gives access to a customer is good.
For the Open Advocate, instead of fearing piracy, they accept it will occur on some level but believe, in the end, given access and reasonable pricing, most will take the moral high ground and buy rather than pirate. To support their approach, the Open Advocate avoids encryption, or closed systems. They license their music in an openly playable format. It’s their goal to create as many sales outlets as possible. It’s their goal to proactively try and serve the customer; to listen to their needs and give them a reason to buy.
For now, EMI is the only one of the "Big 4" recording labels (The Big 4 consist of: Sony BMG, Universal, Warner, and EMI) to embrace and champion an Open Advocacy approach. Since breaking ground (and ranks) to announce they would offer DRM-Free (unencrypted) songs, they’ve been actively signing up partners and handing out rights to distribute their titles. Joining iTunes and Amazon, Snocap and Passalong Networks, the latest recipient of the EMI catalog is relative newcomer MixAlbum.com
Mixalbum.com is a UK site founded by a former patent attorney who did some occasional professional deejaying. The site hosts an automated DJ mixing system that allows customers to create their own custom remixes and mash-ups of songs through their web browser. Users buy tracks to download and can then adjust them as they choose on the site – changing tempo, levels or joining bits of songs together. Many of the tracks sold on the site are available in an open MP3 format but others are available only as encrypted WMA files (which cannot play on an iPod). Music from EMI label Positiva as well as songs from EMI;s dance related catalog are included. All of the EMI songs made available through the site will be DRM-Free.
For copyright reasons, the site doesn’t allow sharing of any personal re-mixes. They are strictly “for personal use only.” Mixalbum also sells a downloadable version of their Computer Aided Mixing software. It’s currently listed as being in beta testing. For now, the site is also limited to UK residents.
Debates and theories about which school of thought on Digital Rights Management is in the right rage back and forth. In the past, Apple CEO Steve Jobs publicly called for a DRM-Free world, Rolling Stone has run articles on the downfall of the music industry, and on Metue, I’ve written about the paradox of Digital Rights Management policies and the hope vested in EMI’s position .
Ultimately, the marketplace will prove which view is correct but EMI is not holding back in defending its own approach. Graeme Rogan, Head of Online, Sales, EMI Music UK has said: “The deal with MixAlbum.com marks the first in a long line of deals with specialist digital retailers that have only been possible following our decision to go DRM-free.”