When I received an email on April Fools inviting me to the EMI HQ the next day for an announcement to be made in conjunction with Apple CEO Steve Jobs I was understandably sceptical. But following the record label's proclamation that it will drop DRM from all future singles, albums and music videos the big question remains who is the joke really on?
From May DRM free tracks from EMI will be offered to all online music download stores. Jobs was on hand to promote the iTunes camp saying that a DRM-less higher quality 256kbps AAC encoding will appear on iTunes at this time for 99p per track. This is a 20p more than the existing DRM laced 128kbps tracks on sale now and users will also be able to 'upgrade' all existing music for the cost differential between the two. Interestingly, DRM free albums will be sold at no premium compared to their DRM filled counterparts.
EMI artists include the Chemical Brothers, Robbie Willians, Coldplay, KT Tunstall, Lily Allen, Joss Stone, Corinne Bailey Rae and Damon Albarn's latest collective The Good, the Bad and the Queen which played a short – but sweet – set at the event.
Both Nicol and Jobs were keen to stress customer research showed consumers would be prepared to play slightly more to have the DRM removed from their tracks though the EMI CEO broke from his Apple counterpart in explaining that it was the online music stores that ultimately decided the prices.
For his part Jobs was keen to stress the move from about "doing what was right" by the customer and denied the move would hit iPod sales, despite breaking the mutually exclusive partnership the player had long enjoyed with iTunes. "We are not offering anything you can't already do with a CD," he emphasised.
Now the cynical – and perhaps correct – side of me says it is easy to see how this 'joint' announcement came about. Firstly Apple has long been under pressure from Scandinavian countries to open up its iTunes software to devices other than the iPod and secondly EMI has been one of the poorest performing major record labels so it needed to do something dramatic to boost sales.
That said, whatever the true reasons behind the move it has to be largely welcomed and it will be difficult for other major music studios to resist doing the same now the first company has broken ranks. In fact Jobs said he was hopeful up to 50 per cent of the iTunes catalogue would be available DRM free by the end of the year...
...but as of yet, we still don't know whether that will include The Beatles...