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Friday, June 18, 2004

bmg/rca, sunncomm and velvet revolver on contraband

contraband is, in one definition, goods or merchandise whose importation, exportation, or possession is forbidden, which gives me a nice, fat ironic platform to sit myself upon.

i last toyed with sunncomm back in november as a sort of brief wrap-up to a series of posts on the drm-hackjob that is the sunncomm cd protection technology (1, 2, 3, 4).

with cory’s piece on drm fresh in my mind and some news about the first sunncomm-drm-protected #1 cd in the united states (“contraband” from velvet revolver), i thought it was time to take a bit of a break from the stupid-government-tricks phase here at meta-roj and jump back into the business-of-music stuff a bit.

since we last explored sunncomm, they have changed their name (now sunncomm international as opposed to sunncomm technologies) and acquired dark noise technologies in an attempt to expand their cd-protection regime to cover the analog hole. they’ve also apparently learned several lessons from the famous shift-key debacle – their “marketing and sales arm” is called quiettiger now. the quieter, the better, no doubt. they’ve also inked deals with emi and a few other companies.

now, i haven’t actually worked the darknoise gimmick, and i don’t even know if it’s present on the velvet revolver cd, but this is what they have to say about thier widget:

The technology, called ‘Q-Spoiler’, works by encoding the original digital audio file with a unique hidden signal. The signal is embedded in the audio master and becomes an indelible part of the actual audio file in addition to aiding in subsequent origin identification. Should the original CD be copied, so, too, is the hidden signal and identification ‘tag.’ Unless [it is] illegally invoked, the listener is unaware of the hidden signal’s presence. Attempts to illegally copy the protected audio using analog recording devices, analog-to-digital converters, or psychoacoustic compression codes, such as MP3, will invoke the hidden signal which transforms to become audible within the range of human hearing, thus ruining the unauthorized copy

we’ve discussed drm as “damage” (with another nod to kevin), but this is literally damaging the audio in the hope of making drm stick.

drm won’t stick.

cory explains just how drm is bad mojo. kevin’s said drm destroys value for a long time. even steve jobs knows about the future of drm (since then, apple has pretty much lost that religion). and i guess you know by now that i agree. in fact, one of the main reasons i think there is a lot of life left in the cd format is because it’s from an age of innocence where decent digital technology was unencumbered by silly drm overhead. the basic cd is just that – basic. no region-coding, no shift-key happening, no software-installing – it’s just a 12 centimeter chunk of polycarbonate that happens to hold music and works in billions of gadgets.

perhaps darknoise will work in the short-term because the sound of current-generation cd’s is simply awful, and the darknoise noise won’t sound any worse than the clipped-off transients the recording industry is imposing on us all. perhaps it’s enugh to save sunncomm from oblivion (their stock price has popped up to 16 cents or so with all the good news), but fundamentally, they’re annoying consumers. they apparently believe that annoying just a small percentage of customers is a legitimate tradeoff in this business model:

We hear from less than half of one percent of people who have the Velvet Revolver disc. Most of those questions are related to getting the songs onto an iPod.

billboard reports that the contraband package sold 256,000 units in its first week. half of one percent of 256,000 is 1280. worse, the people who are annoyed or inconvenienced by this drm wrapper might just be the ones with the most influence – brandon fuller, shane cartmill, tom johnson, eric olsen and others will be talking about this for a while.

i hope sunncomm has their call center pumped up to handle the volume as the rest of the buyers face interesting questions about why their cd doesn’t do what they thought it should do. there’s a label on the package that says the cd is “protected against unauthorized duplication” – so some people might not be buying. they’ll never know how the release could’ve done if it weren’t wrapped in drm – i’m quite sure the music is already “out on the net” – anyone with a mac and an internet connection didn’t even have to hold the shift key.

The first test was to rip the CD into AAC format in iTunes for transfer to my iPod. It worked flawlessly just like any other CD. Next I popped the CD into my trusty Mac, opened Toast and clicked copy. Five minutes later I had a perfect reproduction of the disc. In the words of Johnny Bench in the old Krylon Paint commercials, “no runs, no drips, no errors.” Finally, I tested it in every CD device I owned – seven total. The disc played fine at home, in the computer, on the road and in the portable CD devices.

the bigger issue is the relative value of the drm-wrapped polycarbonate version, which is conveniently addressed elsewhere in the same post:

What angered me is that iTunes offers Contraband for $9.99 and I can burn it 7 times and transfer it to unlimited iPods. But purchasing the actual disc for four dollars more gave me more restrictions.

i’m not railing against drm because i’m pro-consumer, or pro-music-pirate or even pro-boston-strangler. to me, it’s a fairly simple business case. licensing the drm technology increases the cost of each unit, and having the drm wrapper on the cd can only negatively impact unit sales (short and long term), so i don’t understand why this industry is so interested in this stuff.

posted by roj at 4:01 am