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June 18, 2006

A Guide to DRM-Free Audio

Let's face it. The DRM (if you're unfamiliar with the term DRM, click here for an overview) debate is probably never going to be resolved. On one hand, you have consumers (and consumer advocates) who hate having media they legally purchased crippled by what are sometimes ridiculous restrictions. On the other hand, you've got content producers who feel that distributing DRM-free media will result in rapidly declining business as people opt for sharing content with others rather than actually purchasing. I have no intention to get into that debate but do want to offer up something that I feel pretty strongly:

If you are opposed to DRM and want to see more DRM-free content made available the best thing you can do is support the companies that are distributing DRM-free media.

It's not easy to run a company selling DRM-free media. A large number of content producers won't do business with you because they feel that their content isn't being protected adequately (even though many of these same content producers sell the same content on CD witih no DRM). So many DRM-free companies are forced to sell whatever they can and may not have the most popular artists or latest releases. However, if we're ever hoping to live in a world where DRM doesn't exist or has a much smaller impact I think it's important to do our best to support these companies.

To help in that regard I've compiled a list of companies that sell DRM-free audio (both music and spoken word). After all, the first step in the process is knowing which companies sell content with no DRM restrictions. I feel that the best way to fight DRM is to do what we can to support them (and I'll admit upfront that there is at least a little bit of selfishness here as we do have DRM-free spoken word audio on our site). If we do then maybe, just maybe, we'll live in a DRM-free world one day (or at least in a world where there are more options for people who want legal content without DRM restrictions).

A couple of notes: I've tried to stick with reviewing companies whose legality isn't in question. There are a number of companies (the most notable being allofmp3.com) who sell DRM-free media but where it is not certain if they are paying proper royalties to artists. Since this represents a bit of a grey market I haven't reviewed them. Also, I have no doubt that I've left some good and worthwhile companies off this list. I've tried to stick with the larger companies with the biggest selections. If I've missed anyone worthy of mention, please feel free to leave a post in the forums or drop me an e-mail at jon at learnoutloud dot com.

DRM-Free Music Sites

eMusic logo eMusic - The best-known and most popular DRM-free music site. I love what these guys are doing. First of all they're cheap ($0.25 a download). They've got a large selection (over a million songs) and they are bringing on an increasing number of well-known artists (e.g., Ray Charles, Bob Marley, Coldplay, Johnny Cash). They certainly don't have as much of the latest and greatest as iTunes or Rhapsody but what they've amassed is pretty impressive. I'd love to see eMusic get even more popular and give the big boys a run for their money.

Pros: Great selection, low prices, increasing selection of popular artists

Cons: No rollover on their monthly plans (either use your monthly downloads or you lose them), no a la carte sales

Audio Lunchbox - This is a great site for independent music. They have a number of plans ranging from monthly to a "Platinum" plan which offers over a thousand downloads for $250/year. While eMusic might have a wider selection and better prices on many titles, ALB does have a lot of music that eMusic doesn't.

Pros: Diverse selection of independent music, low prices, can purchase a la carte, RSS feed available for new additions

Cons: Like eMusic your monthly credits do not roll over, credit system can be a bit confusing

Magnatune logo Magnatune - I love what John Buckman has done at Magnatune. One of the coolest things is that CDs on Magnatune sell for a minimum price of $5 but you can choose to pay whatever you want. The cool thing is that the average selling price is $8.93. And Magnatune splits all royalties with its artists so when you buy anything on the site you know exactly how much the artist is getting paid. Magnatune might not have as many names that you've heard of but there's a heck of a lot of good music there and given the general "goodness" of their business model this is a company definitely worth supporting.

Pros: Multiple DRM-free formats (even WAV files!), listen to albums in their entirety before buying, give 3 copies of music you buy to friends, their motto ("We are not Evil")

Cons: Not many artists that you've previously heard of

betterPropaganda - A sweet site for indie music with free MP3 downloads. Most of the artists are up-and-coming ones although artists like Brian Eno, Snow Patrol and Belle and Sebastian are featured (however, many artists have a limited number of tracks available). betterPropaganda has done a lot with playlists and podcasts and has a cool recommendations service from Loomia (the same company we use for our recommendations service). Definitely a site to keep an eye on.

Pros: FREE MP3 downloads, Nice mix of up-and-coming independent artists and more established ones, playlists, podcasts and recommendations

Cons: Limited number of tracks from more popular artists

Others: Bleep | CommonTunes | Epitonic | Garage Band | Insound

DRM-Free Audiobook Sites

Telltale Weekly logo Telltale Weekly - Telltale Weekly and its sister site, The Spoken Alexandria Project, have a number of free and low-cost public domain audiobooks. A glance at their bestsellers list produces titles from authors like Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe and H.G. Wells (of The War of the Worlds fame). Telltale's prices are very low and they have made a commitment to releasing recordings under the Creative Commons License in the future. In addition, they give 7% of gross revenues to worthy charities such as Project Gutenberg and the Wikimedia Foundation.

Pros: Low prices and many free titles, Multiple file formats (MP3, AAC and Ogg Vorbis), Charitable giving

Cons: Selection consists only of public domain titles, many titles are fairly short in length

Librivox logo Librivox - Librivox has an interesting take on audiobooks. They gathered an army of volunteers to read public domain audiobooks a chapter at a time. The upside is that they are producing a ton of content to listen to. The downside is that they chapter-by-chapter approach leads to some big inconsistencies in quality (although this does appear to be getting over time). And since these titles are all available for free it's tough to complain.

Pros: All audiobooks are free to download, large and growing selection of classical literature

Cons: Selection consists only of public domain titles, inconsistency both among and within titles

LearnOutLoud - We're doing the DRM-free thing as well and while our selection is still pretty small (approx. 400 titles) it's growing pretty quickly. A number of our titles are public domain but most are not including titles like Think and Grow Rich and content from authors like Bodhipaksa and Sir John Templeton. We're heavy on self-improvement titles but working hard to expand our selection in other areas as well. In addition, we give away one free full-length audiobook each month.

Pros: DRM-free non-public domain audiobooks, Multiple file formats (MP3 and bookmarkable MPEG-4), Personalized recommendations

Cons: Selection is still somewhat small and focused primarily on self-improvement titles

Others: AudioBooksForFree.com | Christian Audio | iAmplify | LiteralSystems.org | Project Gutenberg

DRM-Free Podcast Sites

No discussion of DRM-free audio would be complete without a nod to the podcasting community. I'm not going to review all of them but the best directories I've seen are Yahoo! Podcasts, iTunes, ODEO, Podcast Pickle, Podcast Alley and the directory here at LearnOutLoud.

So that's a round-up of what we've found. Like I said, I'm sure we've missed some. If you happen to know of any other sites that should be included or of any information that's incorrect drop me a line at jon at learnoutloud dot com or make a post in the forums and I'll update this blog post. We're big fans of all of the sites listed here, as much for what they are trying to do in terms of making DRM-free audio available as for where they are today. If enough of us do our best to support these site I feel we can tip the balance in favor of DRM-free media in the future. It won't happen overnight but I think it's a worthy goal.