DRM is Dead, Long Live DRM
DRM is Dead, Long Live DRM
DRM is Dead, Long Live DRM

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    DRM is dead, or so they say. With the “big four” major labels having completely abandoned DRM protection schemes for CDs and with online music juggernaut iTunes now offering all of its music DRM-free, you might think that the era of restricted music files and rootkit fiascoes is now behind us. But you would be wrong. While DRM may be dead as far as mainstream music distribution is concerned, many labels–both major and independent–continue to utilize various forms of DRM and watermarking when distributing music in specific contexts and for certain purposes. Perhaps the most visible category among these is the pre-release promo, generally a CD or digital file sent to journalists in advance of the street date for review purposes. In an article for the Washington City Paper, music journalist Mike Riggs sheds some light on the practice of sending DRM and watermark-laden music to critics:

    I had been looking forward to reviewing Depart From Me, the new album by Definitive Jux rapper Cage, since I discovered 2005’s damn-near brilliant Hell’s Winter. When the package arrived one month in advance of the street date, I set aside everything I was doing and with trembling fingers popped the promo CD of Depart From Me into the computer. And after listening to the first minute and a half of every track, I tossed the CD in the trash. Why? Because Definitive Jux, in order to keep me from leaking the album, made the review copy nearly unlistenable by inserting promo drops–breaks in the music during which a voice says, “This is a promotional copy”–on every single track.

    While drops and other types of audible watermarks are unquestionably annoying and prevent the reviewer from hearing the music the way it was intended to be heard, they are far from being the most invasive method used to protect pre-release music. As a freelance music critic, I can personally attest to receiving plenty of DRM-laden discs from labels over the years. Some would only play if you used a proprietary music player that came bundled with the music. Others could only be played but could not be ripped for use with software like iTunes or digital media players like iPods. One CD that I received a few months ago came with a disclaimer printed on the surface of the disc: it was only compatible with Windows PCs. Since I only have OS X machines at home, I decided to pop the CD in a Mac anyway, just to see what would happen. Whether intentionally or not, the CD consistently caused my computer to freeze whenever inserted into the optical drive, requiring me to manually force-eject the disc using a paper clip and restart the machine. The solution? I simply did the same thing that Riggs did–I tossed the disc in the trash and never reviewed it.

    If DRM and watermarking prevent reviewers from doing their job, why do labels continue to insist on using these methods to protect review copies of albums? The primary reason, it seems, is that labels are concerned that journalists will leak the music to filesharing networks, undermining valuable first week sales. Both in print and on the web, journalists and editors require a good few weeks of lead time, in order to produce an in-depth review in time to meet deadlines. This means that if labels want their releases reviewed on or around their release dates–which they almost always do–they need to send out review copies a few weeks, if not a few months in advance of the street date. In this light, it’s not difficult to see why a label might want to prevent those releases from falling into the wrong hands early on–by the time the victim of a pre-release leak makes its way onto store shelves, it’s already old hat. Of course, there are plenty of counter-examples to the argument that leaks unequivocally hurt sales–few would argue that Lil’ Wayne could have sold a record 1 million albums in one week in 2008 were it not for early leaks and widely-circulated mixtapes–though it’s far from clear whether or not leaks are beneficial to sales in all cases.

    Still, many labels are learning the hard way that DRM and watermarking are not effective solutions to this problem. In his article, Riggs interviews representatives from a number of prominent labels, some of which utilize DRM and watermarking for pre-releases and some of which don’t. Andy Kotowicz, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Seattle indie giant Sub Pop suggests that watermarks were not the answer to the problem of pre-release leaks. “We haven’t done a watermark in at least a year and I sincerely hope we never use them again,” Kotowicz told Riggs. “They have been utterly ineffective at performing the task that they are meant to perform.”

    While widespread DRM use in the marketplace remains an unlikely prospect, non-audible watermarks are increasingly being embedded in commercial releases as well as pre-release promos, by labels looking to track the movement of their music online. And as a January 2008 Wired article suggests, these watermarks could be used as means to a more nefarious end–as both a justification and a functional tool for automated copyright filtering.

    For better or for worse, pre-release review copies are likely to remain the last refuge of DRM for some time to come. Hopefully, labels will eventually realize that the same lessons that they learned in the marketplace also apply in the critical realm–DRM is ineffective, technologically invasive and unfairly burdens and frustrates the majority of users who want to enjoy content lawfully. Ultimately, the labels will likely discover that the only way to completely eradicate pre-release leaks is by not sending out any pre-release promos at all–thereby forgoing the early publicity that drove many of those first week sales in the first place.