- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Teresa Brewer sold a million copies of the pop song “Music, Music, Music” decades before Apple Inc.‘s iTunes store was even a concept. After last week’s announcements from Apple and some other industry players, the old tune came to mind. There are no nickelodeons now, nor will a 5-cent piece buy you a song. These are, however, great times for music lovers.

The big news came from Apple: By April or thereabouts, most every song sold on iTunes will be “DRM-free,” without the much-maligned digital rights management software that made it difficult to copy songs from one computer to another. Prices for songs will increase: Top hits will cost $1.29 each; moderately popular songs will go for 99 cents each; and clunkers, er, less-popular or truly “old” items, will set you back all of 69 cents apiece.

As part of the deal, iTunes songs will be 256-kbps AAC encoded, which translates to much deeper and better sound, even on computer speakers. Whether it’s Martina McBride, Kanye West or Anna Netrebko, the upgraded songs have a great sound that shines through in just about every note.

One aspect of the DRM-free announcement, made last week at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, is an offer to upgrade iTunes songs to the new versions. It cost me about $33 to upgrade close to 185 songs, working out to a little less than 25 cents each. Individual songs cost 30 cents each to upgrade, with album upgrades at 30 percent of the album’s original price. Not a bad deal, in my opinion, particularly where Miss Netrebko’s version of Verdi’s “Sempre libera” is concerned.

This whole thing comes about because Apple negotiated higher royalty payments to the major record labels on the DRM-free songs. That should assuage some of the fear about non-copy-protected music flinging across the Internet at the speed of a computer virus, depriving artists and their management of monies due.

There is another “cost” to this, in terms of disk space on computers and storage space on iPods, iPhones and the like: a four minute, 41-second, 128-bit song takes up 4.8 megabytes of space; the 256-bit version clocks in at 9.3 Mb, a 51 percent increase in file size. But from the very first note of Hillsong’s “Shout to the Lord,” I heard more notes and better sound and felt it was worth it. Of course, I’m also using a home computer with a 500 gigabyte hard drive. How an upgrade would look on my office MacBook, which has just a 160 GB drive, has yet to be discovered.

The bottom line, in my view, is that customers want their music to be “free,” or easily transferrable for legal uses, and they want the best sound quality possible. The cascade of high-quality headsets and speakers coming out during both the Macworld show and the follow-on International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas attest to the continuing demand for faithful music reproduction. The higher quality of 256-bit recordings helps meet that.

I think there’s a way to identify profligate souls who are, frankly, stupid enough to try to abuse the copy-protection-free versions of the songs. Put a Coldplay album on a peer-to-peer network, and you’ll be found out. However, if you want to burn a CD for what’s called “fair use,” it’ll be easier. That’s a good thing, in my view.

Another plus is expanding the ways in which iPhone users can access iTunes music. The iPhone has a built-in iTunes application, but until now, you needed Wi-Fi access to buy songs. Now, the 3G wireless network of iPhone carrier AT&T also will support music purchases. Hear a song on the go, and it’ll be easier to buy your own copy.

The Apple news wasn’t the only good bit of music news this week. Logitech won an award for the Squeezebox player, reviewed here last year, and Cisco systems is about to launch a home Wi-Fi player as well. SanDisk is shipping a “slotRadio” music player, a $100 device pre-loaded with 1,000 songs picked based on Billboard-chart popularity. Whether that’s good or bad awaits your correspondent’s review.

The overall good thing is the continuing explosion of digital music and the ways to hear it. In troubled times especially, it’s nice to have “comfort music” as much or more than it is to have comfort food, and last week’s announcements offer a great banquet of musical possibility.

• Packing ear buds? Write to mkellner@washington times.com.

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