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July 01, 2009

eMusic on Probation

Today, eMusic launched their partnership with Sony music. A ton of albums owned by Sony got added to the roster, and coincidentally, the rates were raised. I say coincidentally because the eMusic honcho says they were planning on raising rates in response to their main indie labels' request, and viewed Sony's entry as the catalyzing event.

Here's how eMusic works. You subscribe, and you get a certain number of 'credits' per month. Credits do not roll over. Every song you download is worth one credit. Originally, the more credits per month you bought, the lower the 'price' of each credit. They've mostly eliminated that with this revision. Here is what I've been paying since I joined eMusic:

At that price, experimentation is a no-brainer for me. iTunes wants $1.29 for a track of DRM-free music. Amazon MP3 wants $0.99 and up. So at around a third to a quarter of the going price, I often downloaded an album by a group I'd never heard of, just to listen at my leisure. I learned about groups I'd never listen to otherwise, and have even downloaded more albums by these no-names after the initial experiment.

Here's my new plan (non-standard, grandfathered):

My price per track increased by a third. A newcomer supposedly will only get 35 credits, and pay $15.98. We'll see if I get the grandfather rate or not.

Now you may say that $0.40 is still significantly less than the majors. You may say that I should still be, what, two-thirds as enthusiastic for experimentation as I was before the hike. Unfortunately, I find my response is somewhat more non-linear.

With the original announcement of these coming changes, eMusic tried to take some of the sting out of the hike by adding that they were going to cap 'some' albums' prices at twelve credits. So if you like albums with dozens of short tracks, and they tag those albums with the cap, you come out ahead.

However, they've also implemented another policy, which they didn't announce. If a track is longer than ten minutes, the only way to download it is by purchasing the entire album it is on. Right up front, let me say that I object to being pushed to download an album to acquire a single tune. If I'm experimenting, I may willingly download an entire album of unknown songs. But if I'm trying to pick up an old favorite, I will be damned if I will pick up the eight or ten filler songs on the same album. Screw you, eMusic.

But that's not really the key problem with this issue. Consider Miles Davis' album "Bitches Brew". It has 7 tracks, but is a 'two cd' set (two long tracks on the first 'cd', five more on the second). The 'album price', therefore, is 24 credits (no option is given to buy the first or second 'cd' only). Six of the songs are over ten minutes apiece (jazz, remember?). Only one short track can be downloaded separately. To get any of the others, you have to download them all, and pay 24 credits!

Result: Bitches Brew costs (me) $9.60. Given that I can buy separate tracks at Amazon and thereby get the entire album for $7, eMusic has very little to offer here.

I buy a lot of jazz albums. Jazz albums often feature long tracks, but also frequently have fewer than twelve tracks. Between the 12-credit 'cap' per 'cd', and the rule forbidding downloading longer tracks without downloading the entire album, I end up getting the short end of the stick. Just to be balanced, the Sony back catalog has a lot of great albums. For the first few iterations (however long I last) I'll probably be dipping into that.

However, eMusic justified it's existence for me by offering a low-friction avenue to experiment. If I feel compelled to perform the kind of math juggling I've used above before each purchase, then the friction has just increased dramatically. I'll continue to subscribe for now, but I'm definitely feeling reduced value for my given tastes.

Posted by dpwakefield at July 1, 2009 08:57 PM

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