Apple and EMI today revealed plans to introduce high-quality 256k music downloads free of DRM restrictions as a top tier option through iTunes – and other digital music services – worldwide.

The impact of this is that any iTunes customer will be able to play tracks they buy through the service on any device, platform or music player. It also means users of other devices will be able to buy their music from iTunes – at least, if it comes from EMI.

The announcement began with a live performance from Damon Albarn’s latest outfit, The Good, The Bad and The Queen. The EMI band immediately began offering its latest album as high-quality DRM-free downloads for sale through its website (using technology from 7 Digital).

Freedom and simplicity

EMI CEO Eric Nicoli took the stage to announce his company's plan to offer unrestricted high-quality music to music fans – the company will make its entire catalogue of music available this way.

EMI's online retail partners are being offered the chance to offer downloads of tracks and albums in the DRM-free audio format of their choice in a variety of bit rates up to CD quality.

Nicoli said, "Our goal is to give consumers the best possible digital music experience. By providing DRM-free downloads, we aim to address the lack of interoperability which is frustrating for many music fans. We believe that offering consumers the opportunity to buy higher quality tracks and listen to them on the device or platform of their choice will boost sales of digital music."

He revealed recent research conducted on behalf of his company which suggests 84 per cent of online music customers would be happy to pay more for higher-quality tracks without DRM restrictions.

"Our experience shows us that higher-quality tracks outsell low-quality downloads by a factor of ten to one," Nicoli added. "Today, EMI and Apple are announcing the next big movement in the digital marketplace. The move away from DRM."

May release for DRM-free iTunes

The EMI chief was joined onstage by Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, who confirmed that Apple will sell EMI tracks in the new unrestricted format starting in May. The company will also continue to sell music from the label in the current DRM-protected format: "Consumers now have a choice," Jobs explained, "we don't want to take anything away from our service."

In a nice touch, iTunes customers who have previously purchased and downloaded music from an EMI artist will be able to upgrade their songs to the new DRM-free format for just 20-pence per track. Customers will be able to set iTunes up to automatically upgrade purchased tracks.

EMI music videos will also be made available without rights protection. Asked if he could visualise film and TV shows being made available without rights restriction, Jobs pointed out that the film industry has never really sold its products in anything other than a proprietary format. "Music and film are very different," Jobs implied.

Album sales boost

In a move that's likely to offer a major boost to album sales, iTunes will sell albums in the new high-quality format at the same price as it currently charges.

However, on an individual basis, tracks will cost 99-pence in the new format – making albums a more attractive buying proposition.

The move removes the major barrier to the playback of legally-purchased music on any device or platform that DRM has become.

"Apple have been a true pioneer in digital music, and we are delighted that they share our vision of an interoperable market that provides consumers with greater choice, quality, convenience and value for money," said Nicoli.

Jobs predicted that over half of the music made available through iTunes would be made available DRM-free by the end of the year, but declined to discuss which other major labels may choose to follow EMI's lead.

Jobs stressed that as of today his company is "reaching out" to other music labels and independents in order to widen the catalogue of DRM-free music the company offers for sale.

One day all songs will be this way

"We think our customers are going to love this, and we expect to offer more than half of the songs on iTunes in DRM-free versions by the end of this year."

Jobs denied accusations that the company is offering a tax on quality, saying: "We continue to sell tracks with DRM at lower quality at the 79-pence price, but we also now offer them at higher quality without DRM as a 99p product. These are different products."

It's not a complete abandonment of DRM. EMI will continue to employ DRM as appropriate to enable digital models such as subscription services (where users pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to music), super-distribution (allowing fans to share music with their friends) and time-limited downloads (such as those offered by ad-supported services).

Sincerity and commitment

Jobs raised debate on DRM when he published an open latter calling for the removal of limitations on tracks sold online. At that time he pointed out that the majority of music is sold free of such restrictions – on CDs.

"We're not offering anything different from what is already available," Jobs remarked today.

Apple's boss did use today's platform to speak out against some critics who, he said, had doubted his sincerity when he published his call for an interoperable, DRM-free online music market.

"Some people doubted Apple's sincerity," he said, "they said we had too much to lose by breaking the link between the iPod and iTunes."

But for Jobs, it's all about the customer – and by removing rights restrictions: "We are continuing to do the right thing for the customers," he said.

It's a simple equation. Offering customers what they want through a buying experience that's simple and easy-to-use.

"Life's a balance between total freedom and simplicity," said Jobs. "We try to find a balance there (in our products)," he added.

Nicoli was pragmatic at the move to lose DRM. "We believe we have to trust our customers. The fact is that some will disappoint us by stealing our music, and we will continue to combat piracy. This move will make digital music more accessible."

It's essential strategy to EMI: the company hopes that a quarter of all its music sales will be digital by 2010. "We expect sales to grow as a result of this move," Nicoli said, but confessed, "we don't think there's any silver bullets in an industry like ours."

No Beatles – yet

Plans to release music from The Beatles have been much-discussed, but neither of the two men were able to shed much light on when tracks from the band will be made available. "We're working on it," said Nicoli, "we hope this will happen soon." But the EMI CEO confessed, "we don't know when it will happen yet."

Other artists on EMI's various labels include Lily Allen, Coldplay, Corinne Bailey Rae, The Good The Bad & The Queen, Gorillaz, Norah Jones, The Kooks, Korn, Kylie Minogue, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Joss Stone, 30 Seconds To Mars, KT Tunstall, Keith Urban and Robbie Williams.