Today Apple announced a game changing deal with EMI. EMI is now making it’s entire catalogue for sale in high quality (256 kbps) MP3 (AAC on iTunes) download with no DRM. Whilst most had guessed a DRM announcement was due few, myself included, expected it to be the entire catalogue. Consumers will be able to chose between the standard price and quality DRM single or pay 30 cents / 20 pence for the high quality DRM free version.

It has been well documented that EMI was in relatively advanced stages of negotiation with a number of retail partners to sell content with DRM but that the partners baulked at the scale of the advances demanded by EMI. Clearly Apple and EMI have identified some common ground. Why were they so keen to do so?

• For EMI this raises the stakes for the other digital retailers: if they don’t come to the table they’ll be stuck with an inferior product mix compared to Apple.
• For Apple this strikes a quite definite pose with regards to DRM. A number of European consumer group deadlines are drawing ever nearer and this deal sends a clear message that Apple are at the forefront of DRM free digital distribution. This enables Apple to build upon Steve Jobs’ open letter and further turn the tables, positioning Apple as the champions of DRM free distribution and the major record labels (EMI now excepted of course) as the villains of the piece.

This deal is a major step towards the majors revising their DRM obsessed digital music strategies. As Jupiter’s recent report on the topic shows, there is significant will throughout the industry. Of course independent labels have been doing this for some time with partners such as eMusic and Wippit.

This should have been phase one of a progressive strategy that will ultimately result in consumers being able to do the same with their digital music purchases as their CDs. EMI have forced the other majors hands by making their entire catalogue available.

Everyone copies to some degree or another and the labels are smart enough (on the whole) to realise that ‘fair use’ copying is at the core of music consumption. By moving away from DRM record labels are changing the basic ethos, from the ‘we don’t trust you and we’re going to restrict what you can do’ of digital to the ‘we trust you and accept you may well do a few things we’d rather you didn’t’ of the CD.