EMI's decision to liberalise the way it sells music online by introducing DRM-free music for legal download has been broadly welcomed by analysts and professionals across the digital music industry.

The move has attracted broad support from across the independent music industry, though the other majors are maintaining silence on their response at this time.

"We have no comment at this time," a spokesman for the world's largest label, Universal Music, told Macworld UK. Warner and Sony BMG have not responded to requests for comment.

Indies ahead of the curve

Indie labels are broadly supportive of the move. Any online music fan will have noticed that much indie-label music has already been made available in unrestricted open formats for quite some time, noted a representative of the Association of Independent Music (AIM).

Simon Wheeler, director of digital at the Beggars Group of independent companies and chairman of AIM's new media committee, said: "While we're pleased to see the first of the majors break ranks in any significant way, the main reaction that we have to the EMI story is 'what took you so long?'

"The independents have a far larger market share than EMI and have been happily licensing non-DRM services for nearly ten years. This has not hurt our businesses in any way.

"If this move is so significant for consumers we have to question why it was not made before now, and why the other three majors are still not coming to the party."

eMusic, for example, has sold over 100 million songs through its subscription service – and all those songs are made available free of rights restriction.

'Growth, growth, growth'

UK online music service, Wippit, strongly believes EMI and Apple's joint announcement will be good for music lovers, musicians and the music industry.

"We already sell thousands of songs without DRM, which are far more popular with paying customers than tracks sold with DRM applied," Wippit CEO, Paul Myers, told Macworld.

"Having EMI lead the charge ahead of the other majors will certainly accelerate the entire legal market," he said, characterising the move as "the beginning of the end for DRM."

Echoing comments yesterday from Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, Myers observed that CDs are sold without DRM, adding, "the only way to seriously sell volumes in digital is DRM-free... the effect of the move will be felt in the coming months." Myers insists the outcome will be, "growth, growth, growth".

Another UK digital music company, 7Digital, also welcomed the move. As revealed yesterday, the first unrestricted high-quality album has already been made available for sale.

The band, The Good, The Bad and The Queen played live at yesterday's joint press announcement, and immediately released its album online in the new format – using infrastructure is delivered by 7Digital. That company is preparing to offer EMI tracks in the new format starting from next month.

A groundbreaking moment

Anti-DRM activists are also welcoming the move. "Certainly this is a step in the right direction," Derek Slater, activism coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said. "It's long past time that the record labels opened up."

Defective By Design's Gregory Heller called the deal "groundbreaking". He hadn't believed in the sincerity of Jobs' February article in which the Apple boss had argued against DRM.

Nordic regulators also welcomed the news. A Norwegian Consumer Council spokesman, Torgeir Waterhouse, said: "No matter how the digital music market develops, today will always stand out a very important date, the day when two of the really big market players finally took responsibility that follows from the position and made an interoperable solution available to consumers."

Not groundbreaking enough

Some critics remain. They argue that all tracks sold online should be free of DRM, and that the Apple/EMI decision to charge customers more money (20 pence in the UK) for higher-quality, DRM-free music legitimises what they regard as the inferior product low-quality music with rights restriction applied represent.

Firebrand music industry commentator, Bob Lefsetz, thinks that music labels need to move even further before delivering on the true promise of digital music.

He argues that music should be sold for a few cents per track, if labels want to see "sales go through the roof".

"If you're not willing to bet the company, then you're not willing to win," he argued in his daily newsletter last night.

"CD sales have dropped since the turn of the decade. Now they're in free-fall and you raise the price," he argues. CDs, he states, remain the superior format as they ship with no DRM and music fans can rip them at whatever quality they choose.

EMI has argued that it is demanding more cash for the new format tracks in an attempt to protect itself from the potential impact of piracy now its music will be so widely available DRM-free.

That's not enough for Lefsetz, who concludes: "Record labels? Your business model has changed forever. Why don't you wake up and acknowledge this. If you don't give the people what they want at what they feel is a fair price, they're just gonna continue to steal."

iPod users welcome the move

iTunes users writing on a multitude of online forums are far more welcoming of the move – many pragmatically see this as a seismic shift toward the kind of future reality Lefsetz is arguing for. They believe that the plan shows the revolution of the industry is quietly forcing itself into reality.

Many iPod users who haven't previously downloaded music from iTunes have expressed willingness to do so in future – now it's available in the new format.

These users were unhappy about downloading tracks with rights restriction technology applied, and/or wanted music at a higher-quality format.

Many such users note that high-quality, DRM-free EMI albums will cost the same as they do through iTunes at present, noting that this is a good strategy to help boost flagging album sales.

And – anecdotally, at least – many iTunes users who have previously downloaded EMI tracks through Apple's online music service are looking forward to upgrading their purchased music to the new format.