Like many people who browse Digg over breakfast, I stumbled across an article on bypassing iTunes's DRM this morning.

Like countless other people, the article's author perpetuates several myths about the iPod and iTunes, but I'd like to help dispel one of them in particular before I explain how you can build up a digital music collection without the hassle of DRM, or the cost of the iTunes store, using such simple and well-known methods that they're often overlooked by far too many people. This isn't a technical guide so much as a reminder of something many people have forgotten.

First, let's look at a major inaccuracy in the article:

A lot of people complain about the DRM found on music bought at the iTunes Music Store. This is quite natural, since iTunes is by far the biggest supplier of music files, and the only legal place to buy files that play on iPods.

Wow, only two sentences into the whole article and already there's a completely wrong assumption. iPods do not just play music bought at the iTunes store. They only play DRM protected music from the iTunes store, as opposed to DRM protected music from other stores. (DRM, for those of you not in the know, is an industry term meaning a file that is protected from you, in order to stop you doing things like lending it to your friends, selling it second hand or copying it.) That's not too much of a concern, however, because the vast majority of music is not DRM protected.

There are many sources of unshackled digital music. There are online stores like the article's author seemingly hasn't heard of, such as Bleep. Even better, there's a lot of completely free music available on various Internet labels hosted at the Internet Archive. Even the iTunes store lets you buy some of its music unfettered, albeit at a more expensive price.

Don't worry, I'm not going to try to convince you to check out strange music you've never heard of. You don't need to, because as much as some people seemingly want you to forget, there is already a very popular digital medium used to store unfettered music: compact discs. Yes, I'm talking about CDs. Despite all this talk about "digitising your music collection," it's already digital. A lot of people may have forgotten this, but go ahead and look at the logo on any of your CDs. It proudly states "Compact Disc, Digital Audio." That's why it's so easy to transfer music from CDs onto your computer - it's hardly translating them at all.

Of course, you probably already know that you can transfer CDs into iTunes. That was what the program first did, long before it had its own online store. With the increasing popularity of articles like this one, however, it seems like a lot of people have overlooked or forgotten about the benefits of buying CDs just to transfer them into iTunes, and that's what I'd like to remind you of.

I'll concede that there are two main advantages to buying music from the iTunes store. One is the ability to buy obscure albums cheaper than their bloated second hand prices, a feature that has caused me to buy several DRM protected albums on the Fax +49-69/450464 record label despite my aversion to DRM. That probably won't affect you, however, if you mostly like music that you can buy at regular chain stores such as HMV and Virgin.

The other main advantage is convenience: you can get instant gratification, saving the hassle of driving to a record store, buying a CD, driving back home, transferring it to your computer, and if you're as bad as me, scanning in the cover artwork and making sure iTunes managed to spell all of the song names correctly.

On the other hand, there are several big advantages to buying regular CDs, many of which are often overlooked, and two of which are relevant to an article on getting cheap music. Firstly, you can buy CDs second hand much cheaper than they are in any store. Secondly, if you don't like any of the albums you bought, or if your taste in music simply changes, you can sell them second hand again and get some of your money back.

I think the main reason people don't buy albums second hand is a psychological one. A lot of people don't like the idea of buying something that's in less than perfect condition. If you just want to listen to your music in iTunes or on your iPod, however, it makes no difference whatsoever what the physical condition of your albums is, as long as your computer can read their contents just fine. A few scratches here and there, or a snapped hinge on the cover, doesn't make you any worse off than if you had bought the album online with no physical case whatsoever. In fact, you're still better off because you can still change your mind and sell it.

Another big obstacle to buying music second hand is that people tend to get carried away on sites like eBay. eBay is great for buying things at the price you want to pay, but the trick is to not get carried away with it. Find an album you want, put in the maximum price you would like to pay for it, and tell eBay not to e-mail you if you are outbid. If you check back later and it turns out you're no longer the winning bidder, do not raise your price. Simply bid on someone else's copy of the same album. If no one else is selling it yet, you can save your search and have eBay e-mail you the next time someone is.

The key here is to have patience. You can buy albums at pretty much any price you want, as long as you don't mind waiting. I personally bought most of my CD collection for under £4 an album, including some fairly rare albums like Brian Eno's Ambient series. That's roughly half the price of the DRM protected copies of the same albums sold in the iTunes store.

In summary, it's quite easy to buy albums cheaply, then import them into iTunes without much hassle. You just need to have some patience. When you need the money or change your taste in music, you can delete the copy you made and sell the CD on again. In the meantime, you can enjoy listening to your whole iTunes library on whichever music player you like, even an iPod.

The original article that compelled me to write this is here:

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