Eric Nicoli (CEO, EMI Group) and Steve Jobs (CEO, Apple Inc) took to the stage for a press conference in London today. There has been much speculation about what would be announced. Some hedged their bets on an announcement that the Beatles would be available via iTunes, while others thought that it would be an announcement about digital rights management (DRM) being dropped from EMI tracks available on iTunes. Optimists felt that both would be announced.

I’ve just finished listening to a live webcast of the event, where EMI and Apple announced a new product available from iTMS: Premium digital downloads. These will cover the entire existing EMI catalogue, will be DRM free, and at a higher quality.

Premium tracks will cost $0.30 (20p) more, be at 256kbs AAC, DRM free. You will be able to upgrade existing tracks to the premium quality by paying the difference. Videos distributed by EMI will also be DRM free.

Existing tracks will remain at the same price, with DRM.

The iTMS will support this new ‘feature’ from May. Steve Jobs said that this is the “next big step forward in the digital music revolution”. You will be able to set a preference in iTunes for your preferred quality.

Steve also addressed the issue of interoperability. He recognised that people want to play on devices other than iPods. When questioned about ‘severing’ the dependency of iPods from iTunes purchased music, his response was that he believes that people buy iPods because they are the best music players on the market. They have been able to play plain mp3s from the beginning, and that people will continue to buy iPods. If they don’t “we’ll have to work harder”.

Steve said that they will offer same opportunity to the other “big 4” distributors. He talked about the widespread cynicism since his open letter about the futility of DRM. Apple couldn’t really want to break their dependency between iTunes and iPods!? Well, now they have, and when Mr Jobs discussed this, there was a definite tone of “so there” in his voice.

In the question round afterwards, a Sky News reporter asked when the Beatles catalogue will be on the iTMS. Eric Nicoli mumbled that EMI were working on it, and hoped that something might happen soon.

Adam Webb (freelancer) asked a very poignant question. Why keep DRM on the $0.99/79p tracks? Why not take it off entirely? Why pay more to have DRM free music? This rather important point was neatly sidestepped by Steve, who said they didn’t want to raise prices. A politician’s answer, if ever I’ve heard one.

Why should DRM free music be more expensive? Well, at least it’s a start. Maybe one day all distributors and internet music stores will operate a model as sensible as magnatune.com.

Read the official EMI press release.
[Update] Here’s Apple’s press release.