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The DRM Hullabaloo

By Damian Kulash of the band OK Go. Damian shares his opinion on Digital Rights Management (DRM) while guest blogging on coolfer.com.

DRM just flat out sucks.

Its most obvious problem is that it doesn't work. No matter how sophisticated the particular software, it only takes one person to break it, once, and the music that was "protected" by the DRM is free to roam the vast expanses of the P2P networks. It’s the most ridiculous house-of-cards model imaginable: one single breech and the whole system implodes. As if to underscore the superlative absurdity of their goal, the lightbulb-heads also managed to cook up software that is comically easy to break. Way to go, guys.

Beyond the guaranteed functional failure, DRM is bad for everyone involved. Tech savvy fans are given more of an incentive to download illegal copies of songs off of file-sharing P2P networks. Why go to the trouble of buying the cumbersome strings-attached version of a record when you can get a better version for free? Less net-knowledgeable fans (those who don’t know how to get around DRM or don’t use P2P networks) are punished by discs that they can’t load onto their computers or iPods. They might as well have bought cassette tapes. The particularly conscientious fans, who buy music legally because it’s the right thing to do, they just get insulted. They’ve made the choice not to steal their music, and the labels thank them by giving them inferior versions of records, hampered by software that’s at best a pain in the ass and at worst a real threat to people’s security.

As for musicians, we get to wonder how many more people could be listening to our music if it weren’t such a hassle to listen to, and how many more iPods might have our albums on them if our labels hadn’t sabotaged our releases. It’s pretty basic: the more a record gets listened to, the more successful it is. Not just in our own megalomaniacal minds, but in real numbers – the more times a song gets played, the more of a chance it has to get stuck in someone’s head or catch the ear of somebody new. It’s basic marketing. Music advertises itself, so we want our music played as much as possible.

We don’t want people to buy our records and promptly shelve them, we want people to fall in love with them and listen to them over and over and spread our music out into the world. Any obstacle that makes a record harder to listen to is bad news for the artist that made it. A record that you can’t transfer to your iPod is a record you’re less likely to listen to, less likely to get obsessed with, less likely to tell your friends about, and less likely to blast out of your car window as you roll down main street. Musicians (and their labels) should be making it as easy as possible for the world to listen to the records they make.

Luckily for my band, our recently released album, Oh No, escaped copy control. It was a narrow escape, however. As I understand it, EMI decreed that all of its labels (including our label Capitol) would be required to copy protect all of their releases starting on the day of our album’s release. When I heard this, I fucking lost it. Not only did our label want to make a gigantic business mistake across the board, but we, apparently arbitrarily, were chosen to be at the prow of the crashing ship. Guinea pigs, as it were. Our name came up in high-level meetings; we are the type of band, they decided, that is most damaged by piracy. Because we are a little left of center and we appeal to smart college kids with high-bandwidth connections, it’s assumed that we are exactly they kind of band that gets traded instead of bought. This may be true, but we are also the sort of band that hasn’t, as yet, been profitable enough for our label that they’ll pour tons of cash into the promotion of our releases. They aren’t going to shell out the big bucks to get us on MTV and KROQ, so those smart college kids are our only window onto the world. They are our best chance of continued success, and we desperately need them to be listening to us, talking about us, coming to our shows, and yes, even trading us.

That’s where it gets hairy. I certainly don’t want to encourage people to go pirating our music. I have poured my life into this band, and after two major label records, we’re barely scraping by financially. Believe me, I’m all for racking up real sales, but before a million people can buy our record, a million people have to hear our music and like it enough to go looking for it. That ain’t gonna happen without a lot of people playing us for their friends, which, in turn, ain’t gonna happen without a fair amount of file sharing. Our label should be able to face this reality, and they should be thinking that it’s better for our career, and their coffers, to have copies of our album on two million iPods, half of which have been paid for, than it would be to have the 40,000 people currently on our email list each buy a clumsily armored copy of our record that they store on the shelf and listen to every once in a while when they bust out the cd player for old times’ sake.

We are lucky that we won the debate with our label, and our record is not stricken with DRM. To my knowledge, we are the only band to have ever won that battle.

Used with the permission of coolfer.com. Check out the original article to provide feedback directly to Damian.

Check out coolfer.com for tons of cool articles about the music industry.

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