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eMusic 2010: A Case Study in Corporate Indifference (but are they the only ones at fault?)

November 30, 2010

I am one of eMusic’s 400,000 subscribers and have been a nearly constant customer since 2005. Like many of my fellow customers, I have been disappointed when the site, where you pay a flat monthly fee for a certain number of legal, label-approved MP3 downloads, has changed its terms of use to the customers’ detriment on several past occasions. Still, I kept coming back for more because the per-download costs were still comparatively low, especially with a discounted annual subscription. Over the years, I have heard and read many complaints about the selection from casual users. But for devotees with the inclination and motivation to put in a bit of time keeping up with current music beyond the pop-chart domain, eMusic steadily offered a bonanza of great music at a price that facilitated a bit of risk-taking with previously unknown artists.

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.

One Comment
  1. November 30, 2010 4:19 pm

    I was once upbraided in a forum by an owner of Bloodshot Records for mentioning the fact that their music was available on Emusic. She didn’t want me “advertising” that fact because she said they barely make any money on the downloads. While I think her attitude about it was curious (why be on the service then?), I can imagine if emusic is now making things even less attractive for smaller labels, it may not be worth it for them to stick around.

    I too am a long time subscriber. I find the new pricing structure to come out to about the same # of downloads for me as the old (I’m unlikely to be much interested in the $.99 songs anyway), but what’s kept me from abandoning emusic in the past has been the ability to re-download purchased songs. As my various IPods and computers have broken, I’ve been able to go back to the well and get my music back – always for my own use only. With that feature gone, the value drops considerably for me.

    They’ve made some vague announcement about a future “cloud” service they plan to offer, which I guess will drive them closer to a Rhapsody type service. They might want to offer some more details on that plan to try and keep folks around. I plan on canceling my subscription, and actually tried to do so last night – they kept me on with a “next month free” offer – so one more month before I call it quits.

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