DRM Silliness

I’m going to get geeky with music, here. Hold on.

One of the things people who get annoyed with digital rights management in regards to legally purchased and downloaded musical files are especially annoyed with is that although DRM is easily evaded by recording the audio playback as a .wav file and then compressing the .wav file into the DRM-less audio format of your choice, ultimately what you’re doing is recompressing music which was already compressed before, thus degrading the sonic experience. So from their point of view this is a massive imposition.

Well, I’m a curious fellow, and so I wanted to hear how much degradation (musically speaking) I’d experience in a situation like this. So I went ahead and recorded two DRM-protected tracks I’d purchased — “Fallen” by Sarah McLachlan from the iTunes Music Store (AAC format), and “The Old Apartment” from Barenaked Ladies from BuyMusic.com (wma format) — and converted the recording into two 128 kps mp3 files, using my ACID Pro 4.0 program (it can also be done with less expensive recording software; it’s just the software I have).

The answer is fairly interesting. There is a bit of degradation, which is expressed (to my ears, at least) as a slightly “brighter” and more sibilant sound at the high end — which in practical terms means that cymbal crashes seem to “sizzle” slightly more than they do in the original sound files. The middle and lower frequencies seem largely unaffected.

I should note that in terms of fiddling with graphic equalization, I tend to crank up the higher frequencies, so cranking those frequencies back down diminishes the “sizzle” significantly; when I have the graphic equalization flat, the difference between the original files and their recompressed children is, from a practical point of view, negligible. And to be entirely honest about it, I prefer the recompressed version of “The Old Apartment” to the original, which is kind of muddy to my ears. And of course, the degradation issue becomes rather less of a problem if you’re happy to encode at a higher rate in exchange for a larger file (which, as hard drives get larger, becomes less and less of an issue).

Now, I’ll note that I’m not listening to this music in ideal conditions — I’m listening to the tracks through my $50 Altec Lansing 2.1 speakers, which is connected to a SoundMAX integrated digital audio card, which is the basic sound card that came with my computer. I also listened to the tracks through a pair of Sony headphones I bought in New York a couple years ago for about $25. But this is kind of the point: Most people, even those who really love music, aren’t hardcore audiophiles — they’re listening to music like I do, on their computer with adequate speakers, or, perhaps, through a portable stereo or (in my case)home stereo component system that they bought in 1991 for $400 and which they still use because it still works. In other words, they’re listening to music like normal humans. Hell, the best audio system I currently own is in my minivan.

(Hardcore audiophiles, of course, wouldn’t sully themselves with compressed music files; they’re either playing their vinyl on gyroscopically balanced turntables playing through vacuum-tubed amps into speakers that laser-detect the shape of the room, or presently repurchasing their entire music collection on SACD. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.)

This is why in a basic sense I’m unconcerned with the practical effects of DRM in terms of managing my music. It’s trivial for me to put the music in a format that I’m happy with, with a sound quality which is perfectly acceptable given to what I have to listen through and how I listen to the music on a daily basis. I grant that it would be nice not having to fiddle in order to get my music the way I want it to be, but on the other hand, it’s no more difficult than encoding a CD into mp3 format.

Neither I nor, I suspect, anyone else who has enough of a technical understanding to grasp either the concepts of DRM or recording from a “line out” feed will have a practical reason to have anything to fear from its restrictions, particularly if what they’re doing is simply organizing their own collection of legally bought music. From the music listener’s point of view it is a corporate tax on the ignorant, in that it is the technically unlearned who will have their music collection tethered to particular computers or jukeboxes or whatever. But such an ignorance tax regarding technology isn’t really a new situation.

Given that DRM is essentially useless against anyone who understands it, I have to assume that the point of DRM is not really to restrict the consumer but to calm the suppliers, i.e., the music companies. It provides the illusion of control, in that most people are indeed ignorant of the details of digital rights management, and have little to no interest in taking the time to learn more about it, and while it taxes the ignorant, it doesn’t punish them the way other schemes do, like the recent attempt to introduce encoding to block people from playing CDs on their PCs. That’s enough for the music companies for the moment.

It’s still not entirely clear to me that the music companies realize to the extent their business model has been blown up, and that people like Apple and (inevitably) Microsoft, in owning the shops, are poised to become music companies in their own right. Steve Jobs denies this idea in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, but on the other hand look at another one of Job’s side gigs, Pixar. When Disney got into business with Pixar, it assumed it was in the driver’s seat. Now it’s nearly a decade later and Disney needs Pixar a whole lot more than Pixar needs Disney.

Likewise, a decade from now, established artists with a committed fan base will be asking the music labels what they can do for them that they can’t already do for themselves dropping their tunes directly onto iTunes. They’re already doing it now — note Pearl Jam, Natalie Merchant and Prince — but in ten years it’ll likely be the rule, not the exception.

And when that happens, DRM will be even less of an issue than it is now. Fans don’t want to rip off musicians, and musicians trust (or at least understand the value of appearing to trust) their fans. Middleman stores like iTunes (and by extension Apple) will more actively take profits from distributing the music, lessening the need to protect their music player market with DRM. Music companies will still be around (they’ll buy into up-and-coming bands and be a relatively safe haven for veterans who don’t want the hassle of running their organization) but I imagine their DRM policies, should they exist, will be rather less restrictive than they are now due to business pressures.

So ultimately, DRM is, in my mind, a middle step between the way the music business was and what it will be in time. It’s transition. DRM means the transition is somewhat less painful and more ordered than it would be otherwise — certainly more smooth than the transition appeared it would be even a couple of years ago.

That being the case, I can hang with the inconvenience of re-encoding music files from time to time. It won’t last.