eMusic 2010: A Case Study in Corporate Indifference (but are they the only ones at fault?)
eMusic’s most recent overhaul, in which tracks are priced according to a multi-tiered system and prices have gone up across the board, has caused me to reevaluate my still-supportive position toward the site. If you look at the eMusic fan site on Facebook and scroll through the comments, you’ll clearly see that I’m not the only one who feels at best let down, at worst cheated by a retailer once beloved by hundreds of thousands of customers.
A handful of the most successful independent music labels, including Merge, Domino, and the Beggars Group (which includes 4AD, Beggars Banquet, and Matador, among others) also object to eMusic’s new terms of doing business. Shortly after eMusic announced its new pricing structures, which coincided with the addition of 250,000 tracks from the Universal family of major labels, the above indies all simultaneously jumped ship. Matador issued the following statement:
As eMusic has brought more major labels into the fold, they have changed the terms on which they deal with labels, some of which we have found impossible to accept, in our own interests, those of our artists, and ultimately those of their fans.
Here’s where I depart from the bulk of the consumer sentiments I’ve seen elsewhere. Why is it acceptable for Matador and other labels to pursue their own business interests, while eMusic’s latest steps in that direction have caused so many to cry foul? I simply do not accept the Matador party line that they are acting “ultimately” in the best interests of their artists’ fans. To whatever extent I am disappointed by eMusic’s naked self-interest at the expense of longtime customers, I am equally offended by Matador’s choice of full abandonment, which springs from the very same self-interest that motivates eMusic. If the other labels join Matador in some equally ridiculous posture of claiming to serve fans’ interests through this purely profit-driven decision, their position might actually become more objectionable than that of eMusic.
So where has all this hubbub left me as an eMusic customer? I suppose I’m still uncertain as to whether I’ll renew my annual subscription when it next expires, at least partially because I’m disappointed that eMusic no longer feels like the online equivalent of the cool local record shop. However, I will continue to buy the bulk of my new music online, as I live about 100 miles away from the nearest cool, local, new-music-focused record shop that I would choose to frequent on a regular basis (there’s one closer to me, but I generally vote with my dollars against the jerky owner). In terms of alternatives to eMusic, I am increasingly impressed with the Amazon MP3 store’s selection and competitive pricing (the $3.99 daily deals and the monthly rotation of $5 albums are frequently quite enticing), so I will continue to spend money there too, when it’s to my advantage.
But unlike many subscribers who have finally had enough, I’m not sure the latest negative developments with eMusic will be enough to drive me away. First, they did add quite a haul of good music, both new and old, through the deal with Universal. More importantly, the pricing is still competitive, though I don’t believe eMusic CEO Adam Klein’s assertion that price increases will be negligible for the bulk of the site’s offerings. On a philosophical level, I can’t reject eMusic out of hand without also shunning Merge, Domino, Matador, and the like for pursuing very similar profit motives and breaking deals with eMusic. I perceive both moves to be driven by certain principles that have little to do with the interests of their consumers.
Perhaps most importantly, I might stick around because the selection on eMusic is still pretty amazing. I can sacrifice the Vampire Weekends and Arcade Fires—the mega-stars of the indie world who primarily traffic in (to my ears) bland, safe, unsatisfying music—as long as eMusic can stop the losses and persuade the rest of their current offerings to stay on board. It’s no longer what it was, and it’s no longer the only game in town, but eMusic still has a lot of great music to offer at prices that are quite frequently lower than what you’ll find elsewhere.
Cool, local record stores are pretty much always worth supporting over the big box stores, but I’m not sure any online music retailer should be evaluated according to anything but the standards of value and selection. eMusic has likely robbed itself of being given a special pass because of its “indie” cachet, but paradoxically, that move frees consumers to evaluate eMusic, along with all of its online competitors, according to the cold, hard retail merits alone. Casting aside the disillusionment, it’s foolhardy to think that eMusic wouldn’t pass that test at least some of the time.