Napster, the brand that dragged the entire world kicking and screaming into the digital music revolution and then became a casualty of RIAA litigation, will soon be returning to its roots in the DRM-free music world. The P2P-turned-legit subscription service announced this morning that it will begin selling unprotected copies of its entire catalog in MP3 format beginning in the second quarter of 2008. Users of the service will be able to buy individual DRM-free tracks and albums, but Napster’s subscription service will remain unchanged. The company hailed the announcement as the first subscription service “featuring major label content” to announce plans to sell unprotected MP3s.
Of course, since the conversion won’t be happening for another few months, the company was very short on details. This morning’s statement revealed only that users of Napster’s online service and its mobile subscription service, Napster and Napster To Go, would be able to buy the MP3 files and use them on any number of devices that support the ubiquitous format. The announcement didn’t mention pricing, although it’s not unreasonable to expect that it will be similar to current track pricing.
Another big omission in the announcement was a list of which major labels will offer DRM-free tracks via Napster. EMI, Universal, and Warner Music Group have already begun selling DRM-free music through other outlets, and Sony BMG is rumored to be joining the party very soon. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve all signed on with Napster yet, and Napster CEO Chris Gorog admitted to the Wall Street Journal that the company is still finalizing agreements with “at least some” of the four.
Speaking of Sony BMG, the music label confirmed today that it is, indeed, planning to dip its toes into DRM-free waters, albeit via carefully-controlled experimentation. The label told USA Today that it will begin selling gift cards in select brick-and-mortar stores on January 15 for $12.99 that will be redeemable at its planned online music store, MusicPass. Through the “Platinum MusicPass” part of the service customers will be able to select from 37 albums available without DRM. Sony’s move isn’t exactly the nail in the coffin for DRM just yet (especially since users will have to go to a B&M store first before going back home to get the DRM-free content, which seems oddly backwards), but it’s only a matter of time before Sony BMG drops its experiment and joins the rest of the Big Four in a more straightforward way.
As for Napster, the move to DRM-free sales is the latest in a long line of attempts to gain a larger share of the digital music market, after trying a number of other initiatives. The service has remained one of the most popular when it comes to online music subscriptions, but is still battling against larger stores—namely, the market-leading iTunes Store. From that perspective, it comes as no surprise that going DRM-free has been popular among music retailers—iTunes still only offers DRM-free tracks from EMI artists and some independent labels. A different and wider mix of DRM-free artists could give an edge to an iTunes alternative, and that’s what Napster is going for.
“The ubiquity and cross-platform compatibility of MP3s should create a more level playing field for music services and hardware providers and result in greater ease of use and broader adoption of digital music,” Gorog said in a statement. Translation: Down with Apple!