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Universal, universally compatible

Universal_music_group_logo I'll confess, I'm freakishly interested in all things DRM. So I've been eagerly waiting for Universal Music Group to announce that it would try selling DRM-free tracks -- something that's been rumored for a while, but only became official today. And while the actual tracks haven't shown up yet, I can't help but feel ... disappointed. The more I thought about it, the less important it seemed, at least in terms of music sales.

DRM doesn't determine whether I buy a piece of music. It determines the format of what I buy. If I want a whole album and the downloadable version has DRM, I'll buy the DRM-free CD unless it's significantly more expensive. That tells me that I have a certain price sensitivity to DRM; I'll accept it if necessary to bring the cost of the album down to the level I want to pay for it. The implication is that dropping DRM won't lead me to buy more Universal Music Group product, it simply changes my format decision. Granted, I may not be typical. I'm probably more willing than the average consumer to buy songs with DRM, burn them and re-rip them into MP3s.

Universal, meanwhile, views the DRM-free thing as an experiment. It's making the tracks available from selected online stores as a way to test the demand for these files. As early as Aug. 21, DRM-free songs will be sold through Amazon, Google, RealNetworks' Rhapsody and other second-tier providers, but not the market-leading outlet, Apple's iTunes Store. (And yes, this also seems to be part of UMG's efforts to take Apple down a peg.) IMHO, that's not the right experiment to conduct. The question is whether dropping DRM leads to more sales overall, not whether customers would rather buy the version without DRM. The answer to the latter is obvious.

I suspect Universal wants to follow EMI's lead and see if consumers will pay a premium to rid their music of DRM. That, too, is the wrong experiment. While downloadable music sales have been growing rapidly, they're still a small portion of the market. Too few people are buying them, and offering DRM-free tracks at a higher price isn't likely to expand those ranks. That's why I agree with Bob Lefsetz on this one: if Universal really wants to move the needle on sales, it should lower its prices for downloadable tracks. Based on my own spending patterns, I think the demand for music is elastic, and lowering prices could generate a lot more income. But that's just a hypothesis at this point, given how reluctant the major labels have been to test wholesale prices significantly below the current level of about 70 cents per track.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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