Why I stopped buying DRM music from iTunes

DRM, officially ‘digital rights management’[1] - but I’m calling it ‘digital restrictions management’ is a technology that lets copyright holders restrict the use of digital content after they sell it to you. With the rise of the internet, DRM has become ubiquitous, though philosophically flawed. I’ve bought thousands of dollars worth of DRM content over the years; but I’m done.

True story. One of my sons bought a new iPod to replace a broken model. Like many kids who live a mostly mobile lifestyle, he never backed up his iPod. No worry, we’ll just redownload the content (apps, music, etc.) onto the new device from the ‘cloud’. The problems began when Apple requires you to use multi-factor authentication to prove that the person using the new device is the same person who used the old device to purchase the content. It requires you to answer a series of questions whose answers may be long forgotten. “Who is your favorite teacher?” Hmmm. What grade was I in when I got this iPod. Don’t guess because you only have a limited number of tries before it locks up your account for 24 hours. Keep trying after that and it will lock you out forever. No matter, we’ll give a call to tech support and give them our story. After minutes of explaining and pleading about the plight of a 13 year-old kid, no joy. In the end, he lost all of the content that we had ever purchased. Thanks for making the world a safer, better place, Apple.

The fragility of DRM

For me that was the final blow to my waning enthusiasm for DRM-encumbered music. Let’s get one thing straight. On the whole I enjoy the convenience of digital music. It’s really exemplary of the massive conveniences that we enjoy in the 21st century. Take a moment to ponder just how amazing it is to access any book, image, piece of music instantaneously. Want to listen to the Górecki Third Symphony? Poof! Purchased and downloaded. But the convenience doesn’t come for free; and although you’ve purchased the right to own a copy of the recording, what you’ve really purchased is a copy of a recording containing a very detailed set of rules about who can play it, on what device, etc. Although restrictions on the use of copyrighted content is nothing unusual, DRM takes the concept to a new level, in which the enforcement of the restrictions is embedded in the medium. It’s also remarkably fragile, as the experience with my son points out.

The purchasing experience

iTunes Store clutter and spectacle I use iTunes to play music, largely because it's free and convenient, and because I've never taken the time to look for more suitable alternatives. Since version 4, iTunes has contained an embedded store from which you can purchase DRM-containing music. Over the years, the iTunes Store has become more an more florid. I'm not a music snob. _(Well, I'm sort of a music snob.)_ I have reasonably eclectic musical interests; but I'm a classically-trained musician. The spectacle and commercialism of popular music doesn't interest me. But this is front-and-center in the iTunes Music Store. You can't find music without having to wade through album covers from Drake, Kings of Leon, Icona Pop, Dream Theater, and (amusingly) Dog Blood. I'm sure all of these albums are fine for their genre; but no matter how often you put a cover of Dog Blood's _Middle Finger, Pt. 2_ in front on me, I'm not going to buy it. You can always navigate to the classical category; but it's not much better. The view is still dominated by album covers as if the picture on the virtual "front cover" is what's important. I appreciate knowing what's new, but just show me a list. In short, the purchasing experience is heavily tuned to music whose enjoyment is attended by spectacle. It's off-putting to purchase classical music in this way; and for now I'll just use iTunes as a way of reverse showrooming[^2].

The device limitation

Apple limits you five devices onto which you can load music you’ve purchased. They provide you with no way of actually identifying what those devices are. If you go over the 5 devices, you just need to find one them and deauthorize it. You can’t get a list of the currently authorized devices. As I said, I don’t shared music I’ve purchased in an illegal way. So the five device limit on my use of the music is an unnecessary encumbrance on my freedom.

Album notes

Album notes

Many serious artists go to great length to write or commission extensive, well-researched, authoritative commentary on the works they’ve recorded. These are all but completely missing on iTunes. I suspect the same is true of other sources of DRM-encumbered music. I realize that actually reading printed material has become unfashionable; but this is a serious omission. My CD case of Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier contains detailed notes about the experience of recording the eccentric artist. It lends a sense of humanity to the humming Gould. I miss this too much. For me, the enjoyment of music, whether on my instruments or while listening to recordings is an experience that works on both sides of the brain. It’s an intellectual, as much as emotional, exercise. The album notes are an important part of the latter; and their loss in electronic content is lamentable.

Resources and waste

I would be remiss if I didn’t raise the issue of resources. Physical CD’s represent only a small amount of material; but it’s not neglible. The case is larger, has more plastic mass and is more expensive to produce. The incremental cost and resource expenditure for distributing music electronically is almost infinitely small. All other things being equal (which they are not) electronically-distributed music would be preferable from the perspective of natural resource conservation. However, purchasing used CD’s is one way to avoid incurring additional production costs.

Intangibility, value, and je ne sais quoi

There is something about physical, tangible objects that makes us value them more. Perhaps it’s because we evolved in, and inhabit a physical world. Music is so incredibly important to me that it’s hard to dissociate from something physical - whether it’s a printed score, my instruments, or a recording on physical media. I wonder whether music is trivialized not only by associating it with the visual intensity of modern performance but by selling and distributing it in a way that’s completely ethereal and dissociated from physical world.

Now CD’s seem like old friends; and I’m happy to be reacquainted.

Comments? I’m @NSBum


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management