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A Niche In The Future

Wednesday, July 5, 2006
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eMusic Website LogoThe 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 My Collection Page
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).

eMusic User Reviews - The GlandsBut 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.eMusic Album Page - The Glands
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

eMusic Main Page

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Wednesday, July 5, 2006 9:56 am

    I said I would, and here it is:
    The Biggest of the Small
    A short, unenthusiastic guide to the top names at eMusic.com
    Just recently they brought in their biggest current name to date: The White Stripes (plus Jack White’s other band, The Raconteurs). Great news, except that they’re only available to download in the U.S. I’m not sure how their system for determining where you are works, but I think it’s based on either credit card info or info you enter when you sign up, because they think I’m in Canada, and I ain’t. Don’t worry too much about this — there are only a few other artists with this region problem (including the Arcade Fire‘s 2003 EP — though Funeral is available to the country what birthed them).

    Here’s my quick list:

    Sloan
    The New Pornographers
    Spoon
    Creedence Clearwater Revival
    The Pixies
    The Weakerthans
    The Flaming Lips
    Moby
    Frank Zappa
    Johnny Cash
    Sonic Youth
    My Morning Jacket
    …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
    Jerrey Lee Lewis
    Green Day
    Broken Social Scene
    Elliot Smith
    Little Richard

    Now, bare in mind that you’re not even finding the full catalogue for most of these bands, but rather just stuff they’ve done early in their career, back in their indie days. Then there are some artists like Fleetwood Mac who have a couple of live albums on here, and that’s it. But again, these aren’t the guys you come to eMusic looking for — they’re the guys you’re surprised to find there.

  2. Wednesday, July 5, 2006 10:10 am

    Promise Number 2: Fulfilled!
    Here’s my list of good stuff I discovered thanks to eMusic. In light of the length of the last comment, I’m gonna keep this one short, Top 5, the absolute best in this sea of verygood. I suspect that some of them have grown in popularity since I first heard about them, but I can’t be sure, being oceans out of the loop as I am. I’m not going to give even the smallest review here, but who knows, maybe in a future post…

    The Glands
    The Black Keys
    The 88 (first album only, second’s kinda lame)
    Elliott Smith (Yeah, I’d heard of him, but I never gave him a chance before eMusic. I was a fool.)
    A.C. Newman (aka Carl Newman from The New Pornographers — didn’t know he had a solo album, and one as good as any of the full band’s albums, to boot)
    White Hassle
    Mitch Hedberg (Another guy I had heard of but hadn’t heard, and only just gave a chance, and thought was great, but now he’s dead. Only this one’s a comedian. They’ve actually got a pretty good comedy selection at eMusic, too.)

    I think this would also be a good space to mention a couple of surprises I was delighted to find. Just two days ago, upon my new stack of 90 tracks becoming available, I stumbled onto Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way, the audiobook as narrated by The Chin himself. And a couple of months ago I downloaded, get ready for it graeme, The Ultimate Orson Welles: it’s two recordings from his old radio show — 1938’s broadcast of Dracula, and 1938’s War of the Worlds show. And these shows, despite being an hour long each, only counted as one track each. Leaving me with 88 tracks to spend willy-nilly.

    Hey, look at that.  I did give the smallest reviews.  How about that.

  3. Wednesday, July 5, 2006 10:52 am

    I’m not sold.

    I agree the per-song price is the best out there, but I don’t like the idea of a subscription service because it forces you to keep downloading.

    I’ll explain. Even at the base level, that’s still 40 songs, or approx. 4 albums per month — 48 per year. But if you go up the top level (which you say you are at) that’s approx. 9 albums per month — 108 per year.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t know if I could get nine, or even four new albums a month and really have the chance to listen to and appreciate all of them fully. That’s what makes iTunes (and bitTorrent) so good — you just grab something whenever you want it. You’re not constantly at the trough feeding like crazy so as not to lose your subscription money.

    But, if you’re able to absorb that much music at once, then I guess this is a good service. It’s definitely better than some other ones where you pay a subscription and don’t even get ownership of the files — that’s like renting the music, which is really stupid.

    I don’t think this would be for me though — I’m a one or two new albums per month kind of guy.

  4. Wednesday, July 5, 2006 12:32 pm

    Let’s do the math, shall we? (But let’s keep the math in US figures, shall we?)

    1 album at iTunes at 99 cents per song
    Say the album has 10 songs, so $9.90 total.

    The cheapest package at eMusic is $9.99, nine cents more. If you only download 10 of your 40 songs, you’ve paid 99.9 cents per song.

    From that angle, iTunes is obviously the way to go. Save yourself that tenth of a penny.

    BUT WHAT IF THE ALBUM HAS ELEVEN SONGS?!?

  5. Wednesday, July 5, 2006 1:17 pm

    But what if I go a month without downloading anything?

    Hmm?

  6. Wednesday, July 5, 2006 1:21 pm

    Then you’ll be hungry for TWO albums the next month! Balance restored!

  7. Wednesday, July 5, 2006 3:32 pm

    While iTunes charges $.99 per individual song, generally albums have a cap of $9.90, no matter how many tracks, unless it’s a crazy, fantastical, uber album, and then they might charge around $20 (which I think would be the record label putting that price on it, not solely iTunes). Though those fabled uber-albums are rare.

    I’m more with James on this one, for the music-hungry, emusic sounds like a good idea, but I only download maybe an album every few months cause I’m a cheap bastard. Oh yeah, and I hate music.

    The Orson Welles thing is cool though..

  8. Drew permalink
    Wednesday, July 5, 2006 7:56 pm

    I’ll admit, you’ve got me interested. However, I’m not a commitment kind of guy and subscriptions don’t cut it for me. I’m materialistic—if I want an entire album, I prefer to possess it tangibly, preferably something that comes in a case, has liner notes and a bit of artwork, and that spins around in circles at a rate between 33 and 500 RPMs. So while I still am interested in downloading those individual tracks that peak my interest, I doubt I’d find the time both download and digest forty songs a month.

    After reading this thread I figured I’d at least go to the eMusic website and have a look at their selection. Unfortunately that information is only disclosed to those who fill out a detailed application first…

    Also, in your post you say, “if you don’t use your regular package before the month’s up, you lose whatever you’ve got left,” but then you replied to James’ comment above by saying he can restore his balance by downloading twice as much after a month of no activity. I assume you were right the first time, or have I misunderstood?

    I’ve only ever used a legitimate internet music distributor once, through a free promotion, and discarded the files after discovering they were in WMA format. I then fired up Limewire and found the same songs with no trouble AND I was able to select the file format and bitrate I wanted. What level of encoding does eMusic use, or iTunes for that matter?

  9. Wednesday, July 5, 2006 10:42 pm

    I agree with Drew about the balance issue.

  10. Wednesday, July 5, 2006 11:42 pm

    The balance being restored was the one about iTunes equivalency. You skip a month on eMusic, then you lose those 40 songs, but then if you download 20 songs the next month, you’re getting them for about 50 cents each, thus balancing out the average song cost back to 99 cents.

    File format is mp3, variable bitrate, LAME compression. iTunes is AAC, I believe, and has DRM, which is at least one good reason not to buy from iTunes, even if you don’t go with eMusic.

    And I thought you could browse their catalogue without signing up. Doesn’t the Browse button on the main page let you look around by genre? It lets me do so when I log off my account. I know that when you download Winamp you get a 50 free song offer for signing up, and you can quit before you pay anything. That’s how I got hooked, only it was a 100 free songs offer that came with a Playstation 2 game. I was gonna take my songs and bail, but 100 songs in I was convinced, and I used up the 40 songs in the basic account I’d signed up for, and shortly thereafter upgraded to the 90 deal.

    Basically, if you don’t use online music stores at all, and if you really don’t think you can handle 40 songs a month (though at about $12 Canadian, really you just need to buy one album a month to get your traditional money’s worth), and if you don’t like the appeal of hearing about and sampling new music in the same place, then it’s not worth it for you.

  11. Thursday, July 6, 2006 10:03 am

    I like to get my music in the traditional way — stealing it from other people.

    I also like traditional cuisine, like tortierre and flapjacks.

  12. Friday, July 7, 2006 7:21 am

    Memo to Drew: I went to http://www.emusic.com today on a virgin computer and I see what the problem you had was. Those are some sneaky bastards. There’s no “Browse our catalogue” link from that front page, only a wide variety of “Click here to sign up”s. But you’ll get where you wanna go if you set your browser on:

    http://www.emusic.com/browse/all.html

    I’ve changed the main post link accordingly.

    And yes Drew, they have both Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Sigur Rós (and also Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson & Sigur Rós).

  13. Drew permalink
    Sunday, July 9, 2006 11:00 am

    Thanks, Adam.

    Having access to that catalogue was the selling point for me to reveal my credit card number in exchange for the 25 free downloads. Won’t be staying on after that, though, as I’m not a fan of variable bitrates.

    To eMusic’s credit, I downloaded four tracks that total over 81 minutes in length and they still only counted as four tracks.

  14. Monday, July 10, 2006 7:30 am

    More as an excuse to keep pushing the comment count higher than anything else, I have a question for you Drew: why aren’t you a fan of variablt bitrates? I agree it seems like a weird thing, a bit unsettling perhaps, but all the audio I’ve heard encoded in variable rates sounds perfectly fine.

    Also: Drew you fool. Did you not read earlier where I said with the Winamp download you can get 50 free songs? But if 25 was all you wanted, had you given me credit for pointing you in eMusic’s direction, you would’ve still gotten your free 25, but I would’ve gotten a free 50! Damn you!

    Edit: Forget that last one.  I only get the free 50 if you stick with it for at least one month after your freebies.  So un-Damn you!  Or, I guess, Bless you!

  15. Drew permalink
    Monday, July 10, 2006 8:11 pm

    If I were ever to create a service such as eMusic or iTunes I would offer versions of the files at 192 kbps for the common folk and 320 kbps for the more anal rententive music lovers, such as myself. In this modern age of high speed internet, ample storage, and inexpensive recordable media, it serves little purpose to crunch down “less complex” portions of an already highly compressed audio file. For a few cons of variable bitrate mp3s, check out this Wikipedia stub. But mainly, it just irks me watching that bitrate meter in Winamp shift back and forth unnecessarily, drawing attention to itself. Just like your typical “gangsta” wannabe coming down the street exhibiting his practiced walking style.

    As for the 50 free songs with Winamp offer, I ask you this, Mr. Beal: Does this offer extend to those who illegally downloaded/keygen’d Winamp Pro?

  16. Wednesday, July 26, 2006 10:43 am

    SUCCESS! Drew has taken the bait! My post has proven its power of persuasion! Also helpful: Emusic offered him a 20 song per month subscription once his trial period ended. 20 a month is just the level of commitment Drew can handle. Keep that in mind, ladies.

  17. Sunday, July 30, 2006 11:45 am

    I’d still prefer to do without the time-based committment (and to have 320kbps bitrates). But eMusic is not a bad place. The 25 free download trial period plus the daily featured free song were got me interested but I think it was downloading that 42 minute track and still having it count as only one downlaod that made the sale.

    20 a month is just the level of commitment Drew can handle. Keep that in mind, ladies.

    Dammit Adam, I’m not a machine!

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