Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Righting a Digital Rights Wrong

Digital Rights Management (DRM) doesn't only affect major label musicians, it now directly affects independent bands as well. By way of a short introduction here, DRM is a method by which it's possible to use technologies to limit what people can do with music, video, or other works. Often, it affects how they can copy a work. It can also restrict what formats these works can be copied into. Some DRM is embedded into CDs. Others are applied by the digital music services that sell music.

And since most of us indies have music up on those online music stores, it affects us too.

It recently affected Beatnik Turtle very directly, when in July of 2005 a fan of ours posted a blog entry about being dissatisfied with Napster - a digital music service that sells our albums. (Note - this is not the original Napster - this is the new "legitimized" Napster where music is sold with the blessing of music companies and everyone shares in the profits.)

It turns out that our music is available on Napster through our association with CDBaby. Unfortunately, our blogger fan bought one of our albums and, according to his post, could no longer get access to it once he stopped paying the Napster subscription fees. Once we heard about his predicament - which we discovered quite a bit later when his blog came up on a search for our name - we knew we had to do something to help him out.

Now you might be thinking that he only bought a subscription, and just lost access when he stopped the subscription. Not so! He paid for the album, and we got reimbursed for it. Napster's business model (at least at the time of his purchase) revolved around paying subscription fees to get (and maintain) rights to the music on its service. You can just pay a general fee to listen to anything in their library, but you also can pay for a particular album to have it available to you on other devices. For the subscription-only purchases, Beatnik Turtle gets about .01 or .02 a play. For the purchases, it is similar to other systems that go for about .65 to .70 a song. Our fan had paid for the songs, but of course, had some DRM that restricts what you can do with it. Once he stopped his subscription with Napster, he couldn't listen to the songs that he had paid for anymore.

Our remedy? Send him a DRM-free copy of our album, with our apologies.

The last thing that any indie band needs is to make it harder for people to listen to their music. Beatnik Turtle feels especially strongly about this and covers this topic more thoroughly in The Indie Band Survival Guide.

But why do you put your music up on these services then, huh?

Well, although we hate DRM, we also love the distribution the internet and these services provide for our music. At the end of the day, some people just want to purchase music from them (e.g., iTunes). Many fans would be disappointed if our music wasn't on that service. In fact, there isn't a week that goes by where someone doesn't ask me if our band is even up on iTunes. It has become some sort of right of passage - some sort of proof that "you've made it" in some respects.

Which is odd, because it's not hard to get your music up on these services.

So we at Beatnik Turtle, along with many other indie bands, find ourselves in the ironic position of placing those same restrictions on our fans as the major labels, as if we only cared about the money that we got from them and that they don't do anything illicit with the music afterwards. We certainly don't feel that way, and don't mind if people share our music with friends. Or even enemies. Hell, we're not picky.

So, to practice what we preach, we're offerering anyone who, like our blogger fan, has legitimately purchased Beatnik Turtle music only to have access to it stripped away, a DRM-free version, on request. Just contact us at our comments page and tell us the story. We'll figure out a way to get you a DRM-Free copy. We further suggest that future purchases come from a DRM-free site, such as MP3tunes.com, which gives you just plain old MP3's.

As we talk about in the Indie Band Survival Guide, DRM tends to really only affect (and bother) legitimate customers while leaving those who got the music illicitly untouched (and unbothered). DRM is not only completely ineffective, it punishes the very people you should treat best: the fan. The major labels and the large music industry players have it exactly backwards. We don't see how they could get something so wrong.

At least we don't have to act the same way.