EMI eyes DRM-free music


Is EMI about to announce support for the MP3 format or some other DRM-free solution? Multiple sources interviewed suggest that the British recorded music giant is mulling offering paid downloads in an unprotected format — and soon.

But on Thursday, one digital retail source suggested that the timing of EMI embracing an unprotected format was uncertain and that the label might be reconsidering its position. These sources suggest that Steve Jobs' open letter against DRM last week is an attempt by Apple Inc. to get out in front of the issue before the EMI move is announced.

To be sure, talk that the one or more labels are on the verge of dropping DRM with a la carte downloads has been running rampant in industry circles for weeks.

EMI executives declined comment on the MP3 support issue. In response to the Jobs letter, the label said that it has been experimenting with MP3 releases from Norah Jones, Lily Allen and Relient K. "The results so far have been very positive, and the response from fans has been enthusiastic. … The lack of interoperability between devices and platforms is increasingly becoming an issue for consumers, and EMI has been engaging with its various partners to find a solution."

If EMI does adopt MP3 support, retailers said flipping the switch would not be hard. Merchants don't store files as DRM-protected tracks; the security layer is typically wrapped around songs at the point of purchase.

But whether it's EMI or another label that ultimately adopts MP3 or some other unprotected format, digital retailers said change is coming.

"This is the beginning of the end, (and) everyone is going to be better for it," said the head of one digital download merchant. "It's going to be one of those things where five years later you look back and say, 'God, that was such the right call. I can't believe it took so long.' "

Brian Garrity is a senior correspondent for Billboard.