Tuesday, January 13, 2009

iTunes DRM Free, but Still Tracking You

Although iTunes Plus files feature no copy protection, files downloaded still contain the email address you have registered with iTunes. So although files can physically be shared with, and played by, friends and family, any of your purchases that end up on file-sharing networks, for example, can be traced back to you.

If you're interested in an easy way to check your own files, find an iTunes Plus file on your computer. Then choose to open it with a text editor (Windows Notepad works fine). It'll take a while to open and will appear to be full of nonsense text, but if you choose the 'Find' option and type in the email address you have registered with the iTunes Store, you'll find that your DRM-free music is not personal information-free.

Ah ha! Still tracking you, wherever you go, even through their new iTunes Plus tracks.  Sid actually played some comparisons last night while downloading some music from eMusic and iTunes.  Sometimes Sid can't find the tracks he really wants on eMusic so he'll take a peek in iTunes, which has amassed quite the collection now.  It used to be hard to find the obscure or underground hits, but now iTunes is ruling the music distribution world. However, eMusic has a billing system similar to NetFlix with their low monthly charges to download just as much as you think you'll use. In fact, often on eMusic, Sid will always get the tracks that are 6 min. or longer, but for albums like Beat Konducta Vols. 1 - 6, full of 1 - 3 min. tracks, it is about the same price to grab the whole 28+ track album for $9.99 at iTunes, as it is by track at eMusic.  

But, the point here is Sid couldn't find "Calypso Blues" by Nat King Cole on eMusic, so went to iTunes to check it out and found (3) different versions - all in this new iTunes Plus (AAC+) format.  Sid went with the track from "The Nat King Cole Story" album. It was longer by about 30 sec. and had more life than the other recordings.

Wa ooo wa ooo oo wa oo wa oo wa oo whyyyy... me throat she sick from necktie, me feet she hurt from shoes, me pocket full of empty - I got calypso blues.

- Nat King Cole

Sid also grabbed "I'd Love to Change the World" by Ten Years After on iTunes when he couldn't find it on eMusic.  But then he stumbled upon some new Black Crowes.  A review by moose56 claimed "It's official. There's two great rock n roll bands left, Pearl Jam and the Black Crowes."  Sid humbly nods his head.  Point well made.  Too bad Pearl Jam will tour almost any country worldwide except the U.S. these days. 

So, The Black Crowes have a live album called "Freak 'N' Rool... Into the Fog," from 2006, available on both eMusic and iTunes. And since noticing the iTunes Plus status of the "Calypso Blues" track, Sid gave a sample listen to each version - the .mp3 on eMusic and the AAC+ on iTunes.  At first, it was a clear win from preview mode. With iTunes, it seems you get to preview the actual AAC file, whereas the previews on eMusic aren't the quality you get when you download. At least if felt that way. It is great how eMusic will let you preview a whole album through with one click on their flash player, whereas iTunes only lets you preview one track at a time, but the previews are often quite flat and unappealing, where iTunes shows off with dynamic, clear, and hard-hitting previews.

But after downloading a full .mp3 of "Jealous Again" and then grabbing the same track via the AAC+ from iTunes, Sid tried a real comparison.  Now, mind you, this experiment utilized a limited stereo system and has not been conducted with any Dolby 7.1+ Cerwin Vega home theater setups, and simply runs through an old Altec Lansing stereo speakers w/ subwoofer setup that Sid's had since the college dorms in '98-'99.  Judging from the output on these prized antiques, both versions of the track hit equally hard.  Sid wants to think there might be a little more clarity from the AAC+, but it's not enough to avoid the following conclusion:

Sid still likes .mp3 as his preferred audio file format.  They play standard on all Digital Media Players, in most automotive CD players and settop DVD players, and you can rip around 10-12 albums to one disc for like 8 cents and store your entire music collection for a fraction the cost of an iPod.  And the eMusic billing structure makes their truely DRM-free tracks more affordable overall for the frequent downloader.  Sid used to suggest that iTunes lower their track prices to a much friendlier 29-39 cent range, but after the supreme tanking of the U.S. dollar, soon to be additionally inflated by all the Government and Federal Reserve Bailouts, this 99 cents a track is probably already close to 19 cents in circa 2000 currency.

Although, not to discount iTunes, the new AAC+ tracks are more media friendly than previous iTunes formats. This will open your iTunes downloads to the Zune, Zen, and more creatively named media players.  So that's good.