Deutsche Grammophon has just unveiled a new download site, where all of us can buy their classical recordings, including many that have long been out of print on CD. And all of this without DRM! (“Digital Rights Management,” which means the kind of copy-protection that up to now has beenalmost universal when we buy downloads (though the tide is starting to shift, not only at DG, but also on iTunes and at Amazon, where all downloads are DRM-free).
A good thing, obviously. But the day it was announced, I got an amazed e-mail from someone who works closely with two of DG’s big classical stars. Apparently DG didn’t tell at least these two artists in advance that this new download thing was happening. My friend was annoyed, to say the least. Where was common courtesy? Where was the thought that, just maybe, some of the artists might like to help promote their newly available downloads?
So I asked a publicist who’d e-mailed me a press release about the new site (not someone who works directly for DG). Was it true, I asked, that DG didn’t tell its artists that this was going to happen? And I got an answer. Here it is, the official — and ineffable — DG reply to my question:
Deutsche Grammophon believes its artists are pleased to learn that their label is making every effort to sell their recordings through all possible retail channels.
A mere civilian like myself couldn’t have written this. It takes someone so steeped in corporate life that they’d long since stopped expressing themselves in plain English. But certainly it confirms what I thought, and what my friend thought. DG never told its artists about its download plans. And now trusts that they’re “pleased” to learn of them!
Well, very likely they are. Though I’ll guarantee that there’s also some annoyance. But why would DG have proceeded this way? Maybe they’re just clueless. But maybe there’s some larger strategic or tactical reason for keeping the thing quiet, at least where there artists are concerned. I’ll float two theories, without any inside information that might lead me to think either of them is right. Still…maybe DG worried that some of its artists might not be pleased to see their recordings on sale without copy protection. In pop music, we’ve seen a few bands go to war against piracy, and some that for a long time wouldn’t allow downloads at all.
So maybe DG had no contractual reason not to proceed — none of their artists, or not many of them, had anything in their contracts to prohibit DRM-free downloads. But maybe DG still worried that some of the artists wouldn’t be happy, and so decided to present their stars with this as a fait accompli, to make protests more difficult. Or maybe DG’s lawyers objected. I saw this happen years ago, when the first music download was offered. This happened in the early to mid-’90s (I don’t remember the exact year); it was an Aerosmith song, if I’m remembering correctly, offered online by Geffen Records. It just about took all night to download.
I did a story on this for Entertainment Weekly, where I was working at the time, and I found out that the record company’s lawyers were all opposed to the plan. They thought it would lead to — well, more or less what it did lead to, though if record companies had taken the lead, and offered legal downloads before illegal ones spread, maybe the outcome would have been different. Maybe the lawyers helped create the outcome they’d feared.
So maybe — and again, I’m just theorizing — DG’s lawyers, or some of them, didn’t like this plan. Maybe it was controversial inside the company. So maybe, in one of those deals that people sometimes strike to keep all sides happy (even if the result doesn’t make complete sense), they all agreed to offer the downloads, but not to publicize it very much in advance. Create the download site, but don’t make much fuss over it. In this scenario, maybe the artists weren’t told, because if they had been, information might have leaked.
This is only speculation. But DG’s blunt discourtesy — in not telling the artists what was going on — does make me wonder if there might not have been some reason for it.