Plugged:

Now it really gets interesting.

Universal Music Group’s decision to test DRM-free digital sales on a widespread basis is a much-needed complement to EMI’s catalog-wide maneuver, allowing the music industry to finally have a rational discussion on the effects of DRM.

The test hits the right mark on all counts. It includes the label’s top-line acts, will take place during the highly-coveted fourth-quarter release schedule, and includes a wide array of digital retailers.

And, it doesn’t include Apple. If you thought UMG’s decision to license music to iTunes on a month-to-month basis was a snub, then this will feel more like a slap in the face.

“We want to have a robust digital marketplace where there’s healthy competition,” a source told me when news of the DRM-free trial broke. “We don’t have that now. Apple has a stranglehold on the whole thing, so much so that all the other online retailers are badly disadvantaged because you can’t buy music from their stores and play it on the iPod. We want to open up the market and create a more level playing field. We want to give other retailers a chance to compete.”

Sounds like somebody’s been reading my column.

But I can hardly take credit for positing this theory; it’s something that’s been painfully obvious to virtually everybody in the world other than the major labels who still cling to their DRM religion.

Whether dropping DRM is the answer is something that we’ll soon discover. If, come January, UMG decides that DRM-free sales lead to greater revenues, it’s game over. EMI’s move may have been a fun little sideshow, but when the market leader takes that same route, Sony BMG and Warner Music Group will have no choice but to follow.


Unplugged:

If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

AT&T says it was an “accident” and expressed regret at the situation, but it sure won no points when news surfaced that someone edited out politically-charged lyrics from Pearl Jam’s Lollapalooza performance when it was re-broadcast on AT&T’s Blue Room music portal.

It’s Verizon and Akon all over again: big conservative telecom company wants to create an illusion of cool around its brand and gets in bed with the big bad music industry, only to get burned when the content got a bit too hot for them.

The situation just reminds me of when the nerdy kids invite the high school football team to a house party and then complain when they raid mom’s liquor cabinet. I mean, what do you expect? Haven’t these people ever been to a concert before?

If you’re going to re-broadcast live performances from such concerts as Lollapalooza, Coachella and Bonnaroo, you have to expect some fringe behavior. And what Vedder said was only objectionable on a political level, not a moral one. It’s not like he did the bump-and-grind with a local preacher’s 14-year-old daughter on stage.

Officially, the company blamed an overzealous watchdog at a partner company for deleting Eddie Vedder’s badmouthing President Bush from the stream. And to its credit, AT&T says it’s working with the band to re-post the original version.

Good move, because all it takes is one such incident to ruin all the credibility they spent so much trying to create.