When record labels finally decided to start selling digital files, they insisted that they all be locked down with digital rights management. We could buy tracks but sharing them–sometimes even sharing them with our own devices–was verboten. I still have a bunch of songs in my iTunes library–the stupid .m4p ones–that can’t be shared, turned into MP3s or be used for anything other than private listening.
That all began to change in Febraury 2007 when Steve Jobs wrote an open letter to the industry, expressing his thoughts on DRM. In April 2007, EMI–still one of the majors–removed all DRM from its files. At first, the rest of the industry thought they were committing suicide.
“If you remove the locks, only a few people will buy and the rest will just share freely!” they sputtered. “You’re crazy! This will be the death of you!” Makes sense, right? It was hard to dispute that logic.
Laurina Zhang, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, looked at EMI’s unilateral removal of DRM. This gave her a two year window to look at the effects of DRM-less music on EMI’s sales versus the still locked-down sales of the other three majors. She collected data on 5,864 albums from 634 EMI artists and compared their physical and digital sales before 2007 to what happened after the DRM locks were removed.
She found that something remarkable happened. Sales went up. By a not insignificant 10 per cent.
By 2009, the three other major labels had removed the locks from their music, too. So did every indie label. Why did something so counter-intuitive happen? And what does this tell us about the behaviour of music consumers in the digital age?