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Tuesday, January 06, 2009, 10:40 am PT (01:40 pm ET)

iTunes Store goes DRM Free, offers over-the-air downloads

While bowing to studio pressure to offer variable pricing on iTunes tracks, Apple has also finally convinced all the big labels to release their music as DRM-free 'iTunes Plus' tracks at the same 99 cents.

Currently, 8 million tracks are available as DRM-free iTunes Plus songs, with 2 million more DRM-free songs slated to become available by the end of the quarter. That will make all of iTunes' 10 million tracks DRM-free, the largest music store library on Earth. Apple will also offer an easy upgrade for users to the new iTunes Plus tracks.

Apple also announced the new capacity for iPhone 3G users to download songs over the 3G mobile network, in addition to the WiFi downloads that were formerly the only way to access iTunes from the mobile. There is no extra charge for downloading tracks over the mobile network, as there is with some other services.

Starting in April 2009, studios will be able to release songs on iTunes at three different prices: 69 cents for back catalog tracks, 99 cents for standard songs, and $1.29 for new or popular releases. Apple has staunchly resisted multiple track prices in the past in order to keep music in iTunes priced simply and consistently. Music labels have just as stubbornly pushed for multiple pricing tiers.

In a press release, Apple noted that all four major music labels, including Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, Warner Music Group and EMI, "along with thousands of independent labels, are now offering their music in iTunes Plus, Apple's DRM-free format with higher- quality 256 kbps AAC encoding for audio quality virtually indistinguishable from the original recordings."

Apple also conceded that "beginning in April, based on what the music labels charge Apple, songs on iTunes will be available at one of three price points: 69 cents, 99 cents and $1.29, with most albums still priced at $9.99."

"We are thrilled to be able to offer our iTunes customers DRM-free iTunes Plus songs in high quality audio and our iPhone 3G customers the ability to download music from iTunes anytime, anywhere over their 3G network at the same price as downloading to your computer or via Wi-Fi," said Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, in the statement. "And in April, based on what the music labels charge Apple, songs on iTunes will be available at one of three price points — 69 cents, 99 cents and $1.29 — with many more songs priced at 69 cents than $1.29."

At Macworld Expo, Apple's Phil Schiller noted that the iTunes Store is the world's most popular online music, TV and movie store, ahead of WalMart, BestBuy, Amazon, Target, and other retailers. The store boasts a catalog of "over 10 million songs, over 30,000 TV episodes and over 2,500 films including over 600 in stunning high definition video."