There and back again – frustrations of a would-be music consumer

(originally posted on blogspot; re-posted and back-dated on wordpress)

I have been waiting a long time for a clueful and usable online music store.

I have no affinity whatsoever for purchasing music in any kind of physical form. Even ignoring ideological issues such as the DRM used on CD:s, I find no pleasure in heaving a physical collection. In fact I specifically do not want it to be physical, so as to obviate the possibility of loosing music as a result of scratches or physical loss of the CD.

Buying music on CD just means that I have to spend time ripping it and tweaking tags to be consistent and correct (abcde in all honor, but the free CDDB databases are not perfect, and ripping still requires rotating discs). In other words, it does nothing but waste my time.

While there are some clueful stores in existence, they are limited in terms of the availability of music. Given a random artist whose music I want to purchase, the probability of it being available in such a store is very close to zero.

Because I recently purchased a MacBook, I suddenly had the possibility to use iTunes. I had very much resisted doing so for a long time because of their use of DRM and because the store requires you to run MacOS or Windows (for no particular reason I can detect). However, when I discovered that they had begun offering content without DRM I finally relented.

I was so tired of the music purchasing situation that I was going to give them a chance, despite the non-portability of the store and despite the lack of lossless downloads. I was going to drop my ideological reservations and just go ahead and start buying music.

And I did – for a while. Initially all was as expected; no particular problems encountered beyond the fact that only a subset of the music was available without DRM, which was frustrating in and of itself. But I was content to limit myself to that, and to lobby for the inclusion of additional DRM-free content (by submitting pleas to iTunes, and by buying DRM-free exclusively, thus voting with my money).

Then, while researching something unrelated, I came across forum threads where people were talking about how they had lost all their music due to hard drive crashes, and had gotten iTunes customer service to enable them to re-download their music as a one-off favor to the customer. Sure enough, looking carefully at the iTunes FAQ there are indications that they expect you to safely backup your music yourself.

I was shocked.

Not only are we talking about an online electronic music store. We are talking about one which aims for a level of integration and easy and use that they are apparently above simply providing a portable web interface. Yet they have failed to provide the most obvious and basic of services – the separation between delivery and the right to obtain a particular piece of music.

There are obvious reasons why you cannot walk into a store and ask for another CD because you lost the previous one, but with electronic delivery there is simply no reason to limit the customer to a single download. At worst the customer could be required to pay a small charge to cover the bandwidth/serving expenses associated with repeated downloads, but to require the re-purchase of the entire collection?

What happened to easy of use and practicality? What happened to simply signing into your account on another computer and have instant access to your music? Certainly – I can host my own music on my colocated server. But I am clearly in the minority to have that option. What about the average user?

One possible excuse is DRM. With DRM, any kind of re-download from scratch entails loss of whatever content tracking is supposed to be done via DRM. I can understand the limitation for DRM:ed music, but not for non-DRM:ed music. Could it in fact be that they do not want to allow re-downloads of non-DRM:ed music because it would highlight to the general public the limitations imposed onto them by the use of DRM? That it would make it much clearer to the average consumer that they cannot treat music purchased on iTunes as “safely theirs”, as they can with physical CD:s? (We all know that the average consumer does not take regular backups.)

I was sufficiently angry at this act of totally missing the point with online content delivery that I gave up. Never mind giving them a chance. That was it. I was not going to be buying any music online that is not lossless, entirely without drm and available to me at any time.

This only meant my frustration rose. I had finally started buying some music that I had wanted to purchase for a long time. I was finally going to contribute to the artists I liked. As a result I decided that – screw it, I was going to start buying CD:s again, despite their use of so-called copy protection that tries its best to prevent me from actually listening to the music I have payed for. After all, in practice the copy protection will not be preventing me from ripping the music for storage into usable form.

At this point one might imagine that I would be happy. Having taken the step to ignore my ideological oppositions, I could get on with buying music.

Unfortunately, the situation on the CD market is as bad as the online purchasing one, except in a different regard: availability.

For example, I want to purchase all Enigma albums. Enigma is sufficiently well-known that the major albums are at least available somewhere. Browsing some of the local online shops here in Sweden I see partial coverage; some albums are offered, some others are not. Some are offered in multiple incarnations, each differently misspelled (but all presumably the same actual album). I could get them all from Amazon.com with some effort. There used to be a “15 Years Later” collector’s release containing all albums; this seems to have vanished now for some unknown reason. Bottom line: I can get it, but with much more effort than I would have liked.

A worse case is Deep Forest which is presumably not as widely popular as Enigma. Some albums are available on Amazon.com, others are not. Most local online shops have none of them, or just a single album or two. Checking out their discography on Allmusic.com, it seems all albums are in fact available – but spread out over various different stores. I refuse to go and cherry pick albums one at a time in different stores, all with their own shipping issues, payment issues and customer services issues. I want to stick with a select few trusted stores (preferably only one).

So I am now once again stuck back where I was before embarking on this entire mess of a trip in a despeerate attempt to buy some music.

Why can I not go to the website of my favorite artist and simply buy it directly from them in lossless, DRM-free FLAC?

Why can I not go to amazon.com or some similar place and have complete sets of albums available?

RIAA – are you listening? Can you please tell me how to buy your music? Or would you rather put me in jail for piracy? It is up to you. Take my money, or spend money on prosecuting me for trying to enjoy good music.

I cannot wait for artists to escape the claws of the major record labels.

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