Does DRM matter to Mom?

The Read/Write Web blog put up a post yesterday asking if DRM-free music matters to consumers. Their point was that if most customers purchasing music on iTunes (with DRM) are using it on their computer or their iPod, then they never really "see" the DRM and don't much care. The music plays in the places where they want it. It's a good point, but I think the number of people whose music is consumed entirely on an iPod or their computer will only diminish.

That's not to say that the number of people using iPods will go down or that I predict the demise of Apple's portable music devices. To the contrary, I have had an iPod for a few years and I love it. If the new iPod Touch were available with capacities larger than 16GB (even at the expense of a few additional millimeters in size), I'd purchase one pretty quickly. I've also purchased many albums/songs through the iTunes Music Store and use it extensively for podcasts.

What I am saying is that I think the number of places and contexts in which we consume music will grow and that those places will increasingly not involve a iPod.

For example, we have a Tivo Series 2 in our family room and it's connected to our home network. The Home Media Option on the Tivo lets me point it at our library of music on a computer in the basement and play back that music through the TV or stereo. The Tivo remote and a full-screen TV are a decent way to navigate a large music collection (though there are many improvements I'd love to see) and the convenience of all our music available that way is great.

The catch is that Tivo's Home Media Option will only let me play MP3 music files. Apple's DRM-protected files aren't recognized at all. There are a variety of similar options for piping music throughout a house and their adoption is likely to rise. As prices come down and digital distribution of content is more widely adopted, it's reasonable to assume that more people (non-geeks) will want the convenience of their music anywhere, anytime.

But for music purchase via iTunes Music Store, you need to jump through several hoops to get the DRM-protected files to play back on those systems. Here are the steps I go through to make it available to our Tivo's music system:

  • In iTunes, I have to make a playlist with the songs from the album I purchased.
  • I then have to burn an Audio CD of that playlist... in terms of content, this gives me a CD similar to the disc I could go purchase in a brick-and-mortar retailer. I say "similar" because Apple's music has compression on it that means the audio on that CD is not as high-quality as on a true, shrinkwrapped CD.
  • Note also that this disc is now also a reasonable backup to my music. If something disastrous should happen to the computer or the iTunes ecosystem, I've got a regular CD that can be played anywhere.
  • Now I have to use another program (I like CD-EX) to "rip" that CD into MP3 files. This is the same process you'd go through with any retail CD and is something I did a lot of when initially converting our CD collection into MP3.
  • Now that I have MP3 files, I also like to use MP3Gain to process those files and set the audio levels. This non-destructive process helps to set the volume levels in MP3 files consistently, which helps fix the problem of playlists that get very loud and then very quiet.

At the end of this, I've got my purchased music in three places and three different formats -- the iTunes DRM-protected files from Apple, the physical CD I burned, and the non-DRM-protected MP3 files that will play through the Tivo.

Clearly, a better option is to purchase my music without any DRM on it. I can burn a disc if I want to (and I do make sure to have a backup of some type either way), but I don't have to jump through all those hoops to play my music where I want, when I want. The MP3 file format is so ubiquitous that I know it will play on any portable player, through all sorts of CD/DVD players and stereos, and through playback systems like the Tivo that stream the music on demand.

So... even if a consumer doesn't care about DRM today, I'd argue that they will. I can easily see a situation where a non-techy (say, my parents) get an iPod and enjoy the convenience of purchasing music through iTunes. Down the road, though, they'll have cheaper, more prevalent, and less-geeky solutions for playing their music somewhere other than that iPod.

Only THEN will they realize what the DRM has "cost" them... and they're unlikely to be in a position to do anything about it. The whole burn-then-rip two-step described above isn't something my parents would work out or stumble across.

They'd simply be locked in and stuck. And it will matter.