I think one of the under reported consequences of Apple’s decision earlier this month to drop DRM from their files and to offer variable pricing is that the labels, via Apple, have extended something that has essentially been missing from the record industry for several years – the replacement cycle.

The music replacement cycle, where music consumers upgrade from less convenient carriers of music to more convenient models (think vinyl ->8-track ->Cassette ->CD ->mp3), was a main driver of the record business economy throughout the late 80s and 90s, and a major part of the reason that labels started floundering in the early part of this century. There are few things more convenient than digital music, and although there are other ongoing efforts to kick-start a new format (like those crazy slot music devices), nothing has come along yet to really get folks to repurchase their digital catalog. Which is what makes the $.30 upgrade by iTunes so interesting.

There have been over 5 billion DRM iTunes tracks sold over the past 6 years. iTunes is offering anyone who has purchased a DRM download to replace their track for a new, higher quality, DRM free download for $.30 each. If ?uestlove from the Roots is any indication (he twittered that he is converting his entire collection of 6000 iTunes DRM tracks), this could be a pretty significant revenue stream and a semi-serious revival of the replacement cycle. Although I think it’s unlikely that continuous upgrades to digital will keep this kind of replacement cycle happening (but who knows?), It’s interesting to see the labels leverage their new, happier, variable pricing relationship with Apple in this way. The good news is that indie artists working with a low cost distributor like CD Baby will get about .18 per upgrade (CD Baby takes a 9% cut from the 20 cents, paying 18.2 cents to artists).

It just got a whole lot harder for online music retailers to compete with iTunes. Although I stop purchasing music from iTunes years ago to buy only DRM-free music (I settled on a monthly subscription with eMusic – which will still be my jam for more obscure left-of-the-dial music for the time being), the announcement by Apple on Tuesday that they are immediately dropping DRM (Digital Rights Management) from 8 million tracks changes things slightly.

Here’s what this announcement means to me:

A) Labels are continuing to relinquish more control over their product (which is a good thing).
B) It’s likely that iTunes market share will increase over and above their already commanding 70%+ of the legal online download market (which is not a good thing for competition).
C) Other players (like the leap year bug plagued Zune) will be able to play music from the Apple store (but only after it is converted from AAC to MP3, which iTunes can do, but is not ideal).

The truth is, aside from folks that are deep in the music business, how many consumers are really going to notice a difference? Do many casual music fans with an iPod know that iTunes had DRM files to start with?

Overall, the fact that Apple is removing DRM is definitely a step forward for the music industry. But I do tend to think that the real game changer for online music will be some sort of collective licensing model along the lines of what the EFF proposes. According to the IFPI, the ratio of unlicensed tracks downloaded to legal tracks sold is about 20 to 1. There are extreme opinions on both sides of the very complex collective licensing model discussion, but finding a way to monetize this traffic in a way that positively affects artists will have a much greater impact to the music industry than Apple’s DRM announcement. Baby steps!

With everything that is happening right now with the Copyright Royalty Board and the new mechanical royalty rate discussions (which will be the first time ever that rates are set for digital products such as digital downloads, subscription services and ringtones – more here from Eric Beall), I thought it might make sense to talk about how you, as an independent musician, can get into the digital music retail game. I did a quick interview for CNN/Fortune last week on the topic of digital distribution, which is a fair enough primer on the basics. Text is below, and shortened interview can be found here.

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The good news is that a lot of what independent labels did for artist in the past can now be accomplished by the artists themselves. Distribution is key among the tasks that in the past were monopolized by labels and are now open to almost anyone through forward-thinking online distributors. Two companies in particular have empowered artists to get their music on iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, and the other online retailers: CD Baby and TuneCore. Essentially these online distributors do exactly the same thing – they have direct relationships with the digital retailers and provide a bridge to get your music into the stores. However, they operate slightly differently. CD Baby charges a small fee (currently 9%) for every sale that generates online. Tunecore charges no fee on sales, but instead charges a one-time fee, per store, per album for delivering the music, and one-time charge per song you upload (both charges are currently $.99), plus a $20 annual fee. You’ll need to run the numbers to see which one works best for your particular situation. There are other online distributors popping up all the time, but these two are the most established and have a proven track record of success.

One important factor to note: distribution follows marketing. One does not market their music by getting on iTunes. The key is to generate interest outside of these retailers and to drive folks to the outlet so they will buy your music. This is best done though a fully integrated marketing campaign that focuses on effective traditional outlets, and also takes advantage of the marketing outlets and technologies that are now available to the independent musician (Internet marketing is a big part of this, of course). Quick advice: be sure to have your own Web page to start (do not make the mistake of only having a MySpace page), and tour, tour, tour. Of course, checking out my Music Marketing 201 course wont hurt either. ☺

Surely as a response to Amazon’s more competitive pricing structure for DRM-free music, iTunes has announced that they will drop the price of their iTunes Plus songs (256kbps, DRM-free) from $1.29 to $.99. iTunes Plus includes songs from EMI as well as a number of larger independent labels. Amazon’s mp3 store, which launched on September 25th, offers DRM-free songs for between $.89 and $.99. The battle is likely to continue as it’s clear that the majors, and in particular Universal, are not pleased with Apple’s dominance of the online music world (70% of all digital music sales are currently through iTunes).

First, what the heck is Richard Wagner doing as the #1 artist on Amazon’s new MP3 store?

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All signs indicate that the Amazon store will give iTunes a run for it’s money as the most popular online music store. First, all the music is DRM free (thanks in part to a feud between Universal and iTunes), and high quality. The site is incredible easy to use, searching for new music is intuitive, and my Wagner download (“Apostles Mean for Small Choir & Orchestra”, I had to hear what the big deal was!) took no time to appear in my iTunes interface. Songs are also variably priced as opposed to the flat $.99 or album only method that iTunes offers.