It’s a gamble we all take when we sign up for a digital music service: Will it still be around in a year or two?
The latest digital music store to go belly up is Virgin Digital, which its owner, Virgin, is in the process of shutting down in the US and UK. Once the store goes dark Oct. 19, customers will not be able to play their songs due to digital rights management (DRM) limitations.
Just a month ago, MTV Networks, owned by Viacom, merged its Urge digital music subscribers with RealNetworks, forming Rhapsody America. Urge never drew the interest that other digital music stores like iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, and eMusic have. Urge’s members, however, were lucky that their subscriptions carried over to the new service.
Another customer base, however, was not so lucky when Sony announced it was closing its digital music store, Sony Connect, by March 2008 and ending support of its proprietary ATRAC format. Those who own ATRAC-protected music can only play the tunes on older Sony devices. Moving ahead, Sony’s newest devices support Microsoft’s DRM and will not play ATRAC. ATRAC owners, then, are stuck using older music players.
The Virgin Digital service allowed customers to download tracks up to four times to replace lost or damaged copies. Since that option will no longer be available with the store closing, Virgin advises customers who’ve purchased tracks to back them up on CDs and re-import them as MP3s, if needed.
Virgin Digital also offered a subscription service, where customers could access Virgin’s entire catalog as long as they paid the monthly fee. Once the Virgin store closes, subscribers will lose access to those tracks — since the music was “rented” not owned.
Virgin gave no reason for the shutdown, according to The Register, simply offering its “apologies for any inconvenience this might cause.” Virgin will offer UK subscribers a free month’s usage of “Virgin Media’s music streaming service” — a new offering that the broadband, cable TV, and mobile phone operator will announce soon. US subscribers are being pushed toward Napster, which will honor Virgin Digital pre-pay cards and vouchers.
The closing of Virgin Digital is just another example why we, as music consumers, are getting fed up with DRM. We invest our money in supporting a legal download service, only to see the store disappear in two or three years. For the most part, our investments are nearly worthless.
Which is odd. We live in a digital world now. We should be able to shop at the stores that offer us the music we want to hear at a reasonable cost. This may be iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, eMusic, Virgin Digital, Sony Connect, or Urge. It shouldn’t matter.
Instead, when we buy a device, we buy a DRM, and we’re limited to the digital music stores and devices that support that DRM. We have no freedom. If the store survives — like iTunes — our investment is intact. If the store flops — like Virgin Digital — our investments are on shaky ground and our confidence in DRM is eroded even more.