A Niche In The Future
The nagging question you have to ask when looking at the prosepects for online music sellers is this: why would anyone pay for what they can get just as easily for free? Maybe there’s a moral question; most illegal album downloaders use the “two wrongs” defense — the record companies are such big dicks/stallers of progress, they’re just asking for it. Maybe there are still people out there who can’t figure out how P2P or bittorrent work, or don’t have the patience to do two or three searches for the songs they want, instead of one-click. But these arguments seem to be on the path to extinction: the more popular online music snatching gets, the easier to both justify and understand it becomes.
What hopes are there for online music stores ten years down the line?For a select chunk of the audience, eMusic may have an answer. The second-most used online music store out there (behind, iTunes, of course) eMusic has a unique element that would make a lot of music seekers turn and flee, but which is exactly the reason why I think it’s so great. But I’ll discuss that later; first, the nitty-gritty…It’s subscription-based, unlike most of the big guns, so rather than paying for each song you download, you pay a flat monthly fee and get a set number of songs. Regardless of which of the three packages you choose (40 songs a month for US$10, 65 for $15, or 90 for $20), it works out to about $0.22-$0.25 per song. If 90 songs won’t cut it for you, there are booster packs to be bought, at a slightly inflated rate. On the other hand, if you don’t use your regular package before the month’s up, you lose whatever you’ve got left (never been a problem for me; I always blow through my 90 tracks, and sometimes a booster as well, the day they become available).
eMusic is really great about trusting its users: there’s no DRM to be found on its tracks, which come in the global-standard .mp3 format and are therefore usable on pretty much any device you can name. Furthermore, if you load up your player with a year’s worth of over 1000 eMusic-gotten songs, and then leave it on a bus, no need to worry about buying them again: eMusic keeps track of every download you’ve done, and lets you re-download all of it again, for free, as many times as you want. And on as many different computers as you want — eMusic gives you freedom to pirate their music like crazy, and they either trust that you won’t, or don’t mind if you do. Either way, it’s refreshing. (I should note at this point that these imbedded images are only hideous because they’re shrunk-down; click them to get a look at the eMusic site layout.)
The potential catch I alluded to earlier lies in their selection: you’re not going to be able to complete your Aerosmith collection or grab the latest American Idol’s dullcrap-du-jour here — eMusic is strictly lower-profile stuff (for reference, I’ll name some of the larger artists to be found on eMusic down below in the comments). Which makes it useless for a lot of people, but not for me. eMusic is not the place you go to get something you just heard on the radio, or to find that song from your youth that you’d forgotten about for the last two decades — this is a place for indie labels to thrive, it’s where you go to find something great you haven’t heard of yet. This is clearly part of their business model, because they’ve created an elaborate system of recommendation, from site editors, fellow users, and probability matrices, to help guide you to your next big find (to learn some of mine, take another look down in the comments).
But there’s no need to rely solely on the reviews of others to decide if you like an artist you’ve never heard of before — you can stream a 30-second sample of each and every song they offer. Still not sure? Reviewers will often point out the best few songs on an album; spend 66 cents and give them a listen-to in their entirety; you don’t have to buy in entire albums.It’s not all indie rock, if whatever notions you may have had about me may suggest this — the breadth of genre is pretty large. Classical alone can be refined into 15 different styles, most of them containing several hundred albums. And the New Age subgenre “Healing” has 156 albums of chakra mellowness to choose from. The volume expands when you move into the more popular areas (rock, pop, jazz, electronica, and classical are the most-populated groups); personally, I haven’t stretched too far beyond the Rock and Blues categories, and in them I’ve found no reason to fear running out of stuff to download.
The best part of using eMusic for over 6 months now has been the discoveries; every month I can count on finding at least one fantastic album by an artist I knew little to nothing about before, and of the almost 800 songs I’ve downloaded, roughly 70% of them based primarily on eMusic recommendation, I’ve ended up with maybe two albums I don’t really care for. These are the best per-dollar odds I’ve ever had, that’s for sure.
As far as I’ve been able to find across the Internet, 22 cents per-song is is the cheapest you’re going to find for a service that actually pays the musicians (and from what I’ve heard, though on the Internet reliability is always a question, eMusic actually does pretty good by its artists).
In terms of getting people what they already want, it’s hard to imagine the legitimate online businesses lasting in the face of ever-easier free downloads (without legislation finding a way to cripple the Internet as a whole). But this is not a risk faced by eMusic; their independent label-focussed selection means that most of these artists would be pretty hard to find over Limewire, but even if they weren’t, you wouldn’t know you want them. That’s eMusic’s ace in the hole, as a one-stop spot to discover these new artists and download them. And I for one hope they don’t ever expand to include the major labels (with their refusal to include DRM it’s pretty darn unlikely), because all the big names would throw off their system of recommendations — I already know I like R.E.M. and Beck, I really don’t need them pointed out to me.
I can’t really claim that eMusic is the far-and-above best online music store in the world, because it’s the only one I’ve used. But I can say that if online is the only place where you get your music, than eMusic alone certainly won’t cut it. But there are no laws saying you can’t shop at more than one outlet; sign up somewhere else to get the newest U2, then come back to eMusic when you’re in the mood for something interesting. llaebmadaeabmada