When Pearl Jam hits the stage for its upcoming 2005 U.S. and Canadian tour, fans will be able to download music from the live shows within hours of the final encore (probably before most of the band's faithful can get their cars out of the arena parking lot after the show). True to its fiercely independent approach to both music and the recording industry, the band will make its work available online without the protection of any digital-rights-management software. This time, however, it's not just a matter of principle. The band is waiting for digital-rights-management technology to catch up with its fans.Pearl Jam has been offering oxymoronic "official bootlegs" of its concerts since its 2000 tour, when fans could purchase these live recordings from retail stores. In 2003, the band offered links on its site where fans could listen to that year's concert clips as well as order concert CDs delivered by mail.
With this latest incarnation of official bootlegging, Pearl Jam is offering professionally mixed concert recordings via its Web site within hours of a live show. The recordings are encoded at a heady 192 Kbps and cost $9.99 per show. Here's where it really gets interesting: There are no restrictions on how the recordings are shared once they are purchased. In other words, the band has opted to sell its music without digital-rights-management protection.
Although digital-rights-management technology continues to evolve, there's still no way to apply the technology seamlessly across different content players, whether they're PCs or MP3 players. "A lot of people are working really hard on coming up with an answer, but we've been hearing that for a long time," says Tim Bierman, manager of the Pearl Jam Ten Club, the band's fan club.
By releasing digital bootleg files of its concerts without digital-rights protection, Pearl Jam is looking to create a smoother process of downloading, listening to, and sharing its music, Bierman says.
Although Pearl Jam has been known to cut across the grain as a matter of principle, such as in 1994 when it accused Ticketmaster of monopolizing the concert-ticketing business and then refused to sell tickets through the company, in this case the band and its management are questioning the maturity of a fragmented technology. "We're waiting to see what happens in the landscape to see where it goes," Bierman says. "The way DRM exists now, it's a speed bump along the road."
Digital-rights-management software works by wrapping a file, whether it's a song or a piece of video, in a container that defines rules for the content's use and prevents uncontrolled redistribution. PCs and other media players read these rules and enforce them for the copyrighted files. Where digital-rights management becomes a challenge is in creating one system that meets the needs for the different technologies on which these files can be played, whether it's a Windows-based PC or an Apple iPod.
The business world hails the arrival of standardized digital-rights-management software that controls access to and distribution of their content. But the average CIO has more in common with Eddie, Stone, and the gang than you might think. They all want one way to apply the technology that works across multiple platforms.
Sun Microsystems earlier this week introduced several open-source projects aimed at creating standardized digital-rights-management software that will help content creators and distributors control the movement and use of intellectual property. "This whole shift to digital media is enormous, and there's a lot of money at stake," says Mike McGuire, a research director with the research and analyst firm GartnerG2.
"These standards would be wonderful if they helped everything play on everyone's different systems," says Joshua James, co-founder of Basecamp Productions, the company whose software is being used to offer Pearl Jam's concert recordings via the band's site. In addition to compatibility issues, the current way of encoding content also affects the sound quality. Although James makes it clear that he doesn't speak for the band, he does say, "I don't think DRM technology is there yet."
This time around, maybe Pearl Jam's dissidence will end up promoting change not just in the entertainment industry but in the IT world as well. Who knew the band that recorded "Black" would have so much in common with Sun?