Amazon.com's Bold Move

The big story is that Amazon is unveiling a music download store which could possibly give iTunes a run for its money. And we applaud Amazon, not only for its cojones in taking on Apple, but for exposing and exploiting iTunes' biggest weakness. Unlike iTunes, Amazon's service will be free of copy protection (DRM, or digital rights management), meaning that if you download a song, you can actually play it on your computer and your cellphone and your portable MP3 player... even if it's not an iPod! Astounding concept!

But what really blows our minds is that Amazon is rolling out its store with only one major label -- EMI -- on board. The other majors -- Sony/BMG, Universal, and WEA -- are still, in the year 2007, worried about offering their music online without copy protection. What exactly are they worried about? That people will illegally download the music for free? That they'll make unlimited copies of what they download? And if they really are worried about all this, why weren't they worried when CD burners came on the market ten years ago? Why foam at the mouth about someone copying an MP3 file when they can buy a CD and do exactly the same thing?

When the other major labels do finally decide to sell their music online without DRM, they'll no doubt announce it as if it's a bold and daring move on their part. But it's not bold to put your hands up when someone's pointing a gun at you. It's a necessary survival technique.

You want bold? We'll give you bold.

A truly bold move at this point would be for the major labels to go to the biggest illegal download sites -- the Napsters of the new millennium -- and do what they should have done with Napster ten years ago; make them an offer they can't refuse. Tell them "Work with us, and we'll both make tons of money. Say no, and we'll sue you out of existence."

Legal sites like eMusic are already successful, and although they offer an eclectic array of music, ranging from new "all-the-buzz" indie releases to obscure avant-garde jazz, what is blatantly absent is the presence of the major labels. Major label artists are represented, but Miles Davis, for example, is represented only by his early work, so classics like "Kind Of Blue" and "Bitches Brew" are nowhere to be found. Close, but no cigar.

The illegal sites already have a lot of the music that Tower and Virgin are (or were) selling, and the largest ones have a "subscriber" base of over 100,000 each. If the major labels opened the vaults and let these "Robin Hoods" run wild -- and charged listeners a fee for unlimited access -- do you think 100,000 hardcore music geeks would subscribe? We do. 100,000 users doesn't necessarily translate to 100,000 law-breakers. Would passionate lovers of music have abandoned retail if their music was there for them, affordable and at the ready? There's a good argument to be had over which came first, the high-priced-CD chicken or the Napster-using egg.

And while the geeks would be the initial subscribers, more casual listeners would follow, as CD sales continue to dry up and record stores keep going the way of the telegram. And while they'd be able to buy the hits, they'd also have access to music that is, for the most part, slowly being deleted from existence, and is NOT available at your nearest record store or on iTunes.

Of course, we realize that the revenue something like this would bring in initially is chump change to the major labels -- although the way they cry and moan, you'd think that we should be holding charity bakesales for them. But they're slowly being forced down the road of unlimited access anyway, as CD sales are withering on the vine faster than anyone had imagined and pay-per-download sales aren't picking up the slack. Why not embrace the future, get ahead of the technological trends for once, and leave music buyers happy instead of disgruntled? Amazon's news is a first step, but consumers are ready for a giant leap.