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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 16, 2007 at 3:37 PM

Jeff Bezos is a tease

Why is he announcing a hot new music store, but withholding juicy details?

I wonder if a bunch of other retailers are going to announce DRM-free music stores, and’s getting ahead of the game, making sure people know that it’s going to be a player.

The main unanswered questions about Amazon’s music store are when it will launch and how much the songs will cost. It’s a safe guess that the store will launch before the holiday retail season and the songs will cost the same or less than the $1.29 DRM-free tracks sold by Apple’s iTunes store.

I’m also curious about the quality of the songs, since record companies may be more amenable to DRM-free downloads when they’re in a compressed format that’s of lower fidelity than a compact disc.

Amazon already provides some free music downloads as a promotional service to vendors and has a “free downloads” section at its music store. I downloaded a few songs as an experiment; one was compressed to 199 Kbps and another was 201 Kbps.

If that’s the format for the upcoming store, Amazon may be upping the ante on quality as well as interoperability — songs from iTunes are compressed further, to 128 Kbps, unless you pay an extra 30 cents apiece for “premium” 256 Kbps versions without DRM.

(Slate examined the premium bitrates last month, concluding it doesn’t matter. I think CDs sound better so I’d rather buy discs and rip them myself.)

When I asked about the bitrates of the DRM-free downloads it will sell, I ended up on the phone with Bill Carr, vice president for digital media. The eight-year veteran is in charge of the new download business.

Carr didn’t answer the question, but gave me some perspective on why Amazon is making this move.

He said DRM has been a big impediment to digital music sales because of interoperability problems it causes for consumers. Amazon has been talking to record companies for months, drawing on relationships that began when it launched its CD store in 1998, he said.

“We’ve been working within the record industry now for quite some time to help pave the way to a more customer-centric approach. That approach is to enable DRM-free music downloads, which we think will help drive customers toward legitimate forms of music downloads.”

Details about bitrates won’t be provided until the service launches:

“I wouldn’t comment on the specific bitrate but rest assured that the product will be a high-quality product.”

Carr said the store will have “an incredibly positive impact” in the music business. He wouldn’t say whether he expects to leapfrog iTunes.

“We’re one of the largest CD retailers not only in the U.S. but on a global basis. We’re the only one that has had a growing business for several years in a row. … We believe we can inject similar growth into this business by offering customers what they want.”

I asked if Amazon had plans to sell a branded digital music player to complement the music store. He said there aren’t plans for a device, and noted that Amazon sells other companies’ digital music players at its electronics store.

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