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Sounding Off: DRM - Daft & Rather Meaningless?

Roger Thomas

Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, the legendary DJ who passed away in November 2006, inspired a generation of listeners with his Pick Of The Pops radio show. If you were poor, mean or too far from a town centre to buy records, you simply sat with your finger poised over the record button of your tape machine, acquired your music for the price of a cassette and didn't worry unduly about the sound quality. The record industry seemed largely uninterested, perhaps realising that the lo-fi results would never be a permanent substitute for buying proper recordings. Indeed, many of those home recordists grew up to be enthusiastic music buyers, who, since then, have probably put enough cash into the record industry's pockets to purchase Belgium, so their consciences should be clear.Sounding Off

However, the average music consumer's expectations regarding sound quality now seem to have come full circle. The hi-fi boom years saw us all aspiring to sonic perfection, but CDs defied the tinkering so beloved of the audiophile, and now MP3 players have us listening perfectly happily to lossily-compressed music through tiny earpieces.

One thing that the present generation of listeners appears to have in common with Fluff's followers is the realisation that a lot of the time our sonic expectations of recorded music are relatively low. We don't insist on hearing every nuance when listening casually, such as on a crowded train. All we really need is a reminder of what the music we enjoy sounds like, so provided it isn't distorted, too loud or too quiet, we're happy.

What, then, of the well-worn debate surrounding Digital Rights Management versus DRM-free music? Well, the music business is an example of what is referred to in suit-speak as a 'functional silo': a self-contained area of business that just does what it does, regardless of the outside world. When first presented with the suggestion that the advent of digital sound would cause it to converge with the computer industry, the typical response from the business was "La la la, I'm not listening...". DRM and everything associated with it are the consequences of that single moment of denial, yet no-one's really learned anything, since, as far as music's concerned, DRM doesn't really exist.

There, I've said it. Any SOS reader confronted with a DRM file will look at a basic sound recording program, such as Audacity, and realise that any music that's simply audible (never mind downloadable) on a computer can be captured in real time via the soundcard's output, then saved, copied and played on any gadget and in any format desired. Ironically, from the pro audio perspective, Audacity is legitimate, respected and free (it's often bundled with USB turntables), but the record industry either knows nothing about such programs or is hoping nobody else does. Attempting to remove such software from the marketplace for the benefit of the record industry would be like trying to ban photocopiers on the say-so of magazine publishers. Maybe the sound's less pristine than a download or a rip, but it's perfectly acceptable, it's absolutely free and since we're all listening on earphones anyway, who cares?

Since DRM needn't be cracked when it can simply be sidestepped in this way, applying it to music was pointless long before the likes of Apple's Steve Jobs joined the debate. More significantly, web-based audio libraries, video sharing sites, on-line radio stations and other streamed music sources are all effectively (un)fair game for amateur digital recordists, much as Fluff was for tapeheads. I suggested this to many record company executives at MIDEM (the industry's trade fair in Cannes) and was met with Homer Simpson-esque blinks of incomprehension. Even the BBC can't get the facts right; an on-line documentary about DRM stated that it could only be circumvented by ripping the music to CD then transferring it back again, implying that this was a disincentive. No doubt it would be if it were true.

As things stand, though, all the punditry devoted to the subject is irrelevant if anyone can, in fact, help themselves to anything they hear on CD or on-line, free of charge and forever, regardless of DRM. Maybe the record industry should instead be devoting its energies to encouraging a new, mutually supportive relationship with its customers, of the kind which already exists in specialist areas such as jazz, where people pay for music because they actually think the recipients deserve the money? Just a thought. 

About The Author

Roger Thomas is a music critic, author, musician and part-time lecturer in music at Brunel University. You can find out more about him on the Internet by visiting www.freewebs.com/roger-thomas.

Published October 2007