EMI Tests Selling Unprotected MP3s

For years, the music industry has been adamant that they’re only interested in selling digital music which can’t be (easily) copied or shared amongst computer users. The argument goes that releasing copyable music would only cannibalize record sales as users opt for byte-perfect, pirated music rather than purchasing songs—or albums—for themselves. And that’s why music from major labels is available for sale only when protected by digital rights management technology, typically Apple’s FairPlay or Microsoft’s Windows Media (or, now, Zune DRM).

But Britain’s EMI—one of the four major music distributors—is once again testing the idea of selling music in MP3 format without copy protection, experimenting with Yahoo Music to offer the Norah Jones single "Thinking About You" and "Must Have Done Something Right" from Reliant K for $.99. EMI is also offering U.K. customers an MP3 from pop singer Lily Allen, and Reliant K is selling a second MP3 via the band’s Web site.

The two MP3-format EMI singles available via Yahoo Music are offered right alongside copy-protected offerings, and both are released from new albums by the artists: clearly, EMI is hoping offering unencumbered singles will draw attention to the albums and spark additional sales. But the advantage of unencumbered MP3s goes beyond mere promotion, since essentially every computer and portable digital music player on the market supports MP3 files, whereas songs purchased through iTunes famously only work on the iPod or via iTunes software (and protected WMA songs can’t be played on iPods), making the proposition of purchasing digital music annoying and complicated for consumers. And self-proclaimed number two online music distributor eMusic has made a splash by only selling music in the unprotected MP3 format…although major labels have never gotten on board.

The two tracks aren’t the first time Yahoo has experimented with straight MP3 offerings: earlier in 2006 it offered a single from celebrity Jessica Simpson in MP3 format, and in September offered Jesse McCartney’s Right Where You Want album for $9.99 in MP3 format.

While it’s unlikely the availability of two unprotected music tracks is any sort of watershed event for the music industry, it may indicate that the major labels are beginning to reconsider their digital music business models.

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