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Upgrade My Library, Gratis

File this in the, “Fun to think about, but it’ll never happen,” category.

Record labels, here’s a crazy idea: let me upgrade my DRM’d music to non-DRM’d music for free (or at least some sort of nominal, one-time flat fee that covers bandwidth and credit card processing).

I read a silly rumor story today about Apple possibly being “on the verge” of signing another of the big labels to iTunes Plus. The story is meaningless, but it got me thinking.

It’s probably an inevitability that all of the major labels will eventually drop DRM in iTunes. It’s fairly common knowledge that the only reason they haven’t done so already is because it gives them a bit of leverage in bargaining with Apple, who would prefer not to sell DRM-infested music. The labels think iTunes/Apple is too powerful and they don’t like someone else controlling their pricing. That’s why they lavished Amazon with the DRM-free “get of out of jail” card. Amazon allows a wider range of pricing. And any time savvy consumers make a conscious decision to shop there instead of iTunes because of DRM, it gives the labels a bit more power. But that’s all beside the point.

What I really wanted to talk about was what happens as each of those labels make the switch and drop DRM on iTunes. EMI and some indie’s are already DRM-free and Apple offers an “upgrade” path. For $0.30 a song (that you originally paid $0.99 for), you can upgrade to a higher-quality, non-DRM’d version of the song. All in all it’s not a bad offer. And as consumers we all knowingly purchased “locked” music. But maybe there is a goodwill opportunity here that the labels are missing.

For years the big labels have treated consumers as criminals. Out of one side of their mouth they’ve argued that the future of their business was being stolen by the internet while out of the other side of their mouth they’ve searched out many ways to sell you (the purported thief) the same music, over, and over, and over again. “Buy the CD. Now buy the ringtone. Now buy it for your iPod. Now pay a subscription to stream it to your computer.”

To the consumer, upgrade my library feels like another money grab. Sure, the files might technically be of a higher quality, but most people can’t discern between 128kbps AAC and 256kbps AAC. To the consumer, they’re being asked to pay again to free the music that they’ve already bought from the draconian limits the label placed on it in the first place because, they argued, their very customers are criminals.

What if, as a way of making amends, a bit of extension of good will, a kind of, “hey, sorry for suing grandmas who forgot to lock down their wireless connections” type of apology, the big labels got together with Apple and offered to not only drop DRM on iTunes, but also offered to upgrade everyone’s iTunes library, for free?

I know, it’s a big, gigantic, wishful, “what if?” It won’t happen and I’m really not even suggesting it seriously. My point is this: where are you missing this opportunity? With your customers/clients? Creating goodwill could be so easy for the big labels, but they’re so stubborn. It’s almost as if they can’t allow themselves to be successful. In my business, I often go out of my way not to nickel & dime clients. Certainly there are limits and boundaries that need to be set, but almost all of my clients have dealt with a design firm in the past that pulled miscellaneous fees out of nowhere. It hurts the relationship and ultimately helps no one.

Right now, that’s what I feel like my relationship is like with labels. I get a lot of joy out of music. But I go out of my way to make sure the labels get as little of my money as possible, and that the bands get as much of it as possible. I don’t think I’m the only one.

UPDATE 01/07/2009: So, yesterday at Apple’s Macworld Keynote they announced exactly what myself (and many others saw as inevitable), a wholesale dropping of DRM for the iTunes store. Sadly, no one was creative enough to think of offering free (or close to free) upgrades. Getting rid of the DRM-infestation on music you’ve already paid for will cost you $0.30 per track. Oh well, nice thought…

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