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Apple Music and the terrible return of DRM

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Give me convenience or give me death

My Amazon Echo just arrived, months after I pre-ordered it. I'd totally forgotten about it until I got a ship notification the other day, and then it was there, a strange little tube promising yet another peek at a future that never seems fully within grasp.

After two days with it, it's mostly useful as a sort of permanent Siri: we've set kitchen timers with it, asked it for the weather, and otherwise generally ignored it. It seemed destined to be yet another foolish gadget buy, until I randomly asked it to play some music for me.

And then it was magic. All of the stress and panic I feel when I have to pull out a smartphone and open an app and pick a playlist and select my AirPlay or Bluetooth speakers and wait for it all to work is gone. I just ask for music, and it's there. Great.

But it's also super depressing, because it's just another example of how the rise of streaming media has brought crazy digital rights management back into our lives. We've completely traded convenience for ecosystem lock-in, and it sucks.

We've completely traded convenience for ecosystem lock-in, and it sucks

Right now, the Echo can play music from Amazon's Prime Music service, Pandora, and whatever random music I've uploaded to my Amazon cloud locker. This means that the music selection is pretty bad! I stopped buying music around the time I started using Spotify, so I don't have much new stuff to upload, and Prime Music has a fairly thin catalog compared to Spotify. Basically this thing can play my 2000s-era iTunes collection at me, which means I'm listening Wilco and The Clash way more than I have in the past few years. Is that good? It might be good.

But next week Apple is probably going to launch another streaming service, and if history is any guide, it's only going to work with Apple products. That means I'll have yet a fourth music service in my life (Spotify, Google Play Music, Prime, and Apple Music) and a fourth set of content exclusives and pricing windows to think about instead of just listening to music.

In 2007, Steve Jobs wrote a fiery essay on Apple.com called "Thoughts on Music." The essay is now gone from Apple's site, but it remains as powerful as ever, a straightforward examination of the state of digital music and the pros and cons of applying digital rights management to purchased music files — there were no streaming services back then. The labels had forced Apple to use DRM in the early days of iTunes, and Jobs clearly recognized that although Apple and the iPod had emerged as the early winners in digital music, the effort required to maintain DRM over time (or license Apple's DRM to other companies) would be better spent making new products and services.

"If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music," wrote Jobs. "If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players. This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies."

But it's no longer the labels pushing DRM on the music services; it's the services themselves, because locking you into a single ecosystem guarantees you'll keep paying their monthly subscription fees and hopefully buy into the rest of their ecosystem. Google Play Music is an objectively better experience on an Android phone than an iPhone, because it can download files in the background and purchase music not available for streaming. Apple Music might be available on Android, but it probably won't be as good, because Apple wants you to buy an iPhone. Playing Spotify through Bluetooth or AirPlay on iOS requires a trip through a totally superfluous screen promoting Spotify Connect. YouTube is the best way to find and share a single song on a desktop computer, but it remains a strange little island, disconnected from almost every other service. I used to love playing MP3s on my Xbox 360 while gaming, but there's no Spotify app on the Xbox One, so those days are over.

There's not even a single standard playlist format to make switching services easier

There's not even a single standard playlist format to make switching services easier, like the old .m3u playlist files my friends and I used to swap back and forth between iTunes and WinAmp and whatever else. There's just lock-in, endless lock-in.

Is this what we wanted? Am I really despairing for the days when I maintained a huge collection of legal and not-so-legal MP3 files that could play on any device I owned without any hassle? I don't know.

All I know is that I'm listening to a lot of Wilco on my Amazon Echo.

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