Chasing iTunes

Loop Guru - "Duniya"I’ve been a “subscriber” to eMusic ( since 2000. My first download – a free album to entice me to the online music store – was Loop Guru’s Duniya, a techno world fusion band weaving Middle Eastern musical motifs into electronica. I’d never heard of them or the album, but took a flier on it over some others that were better known (such as Bush’s Sixteen Stone).

That intro to eMusic was what eMusic used to be all about: music discovery. Early on only independent labels were offered; none of the major labels were even on board with digital downloads much less licensing them to a service like eMusic. eMusic was different; you had to pony up a subscription every month in return for downloads – the number depending on the subscription level. One download equaled one track … whether that track was 15 seconds long or 50 minutes long.

You were not going to find Faith Hill, Santana, Matchbox Twenty, Creed, or N’Sync on eMusic. Universal, Sony, EMI, or Warner were not to be found; they were still on stun by the explosion of digital piracy, and were fighting it by refusing to license their music to online stores while putting out unprotected CDs for people to rip and share. That was okay for us eMusers; we weren’t looking for the Billboard Top 100.

Even more extraordinary was eMusic sold unprotected digital music files, MP3’s, that played on any computer or digital music player! When iTunes finally lured the RIAA Big 4 online, they did it with tracks that were tightly locked down, playable only on a limited number of approved computers and players. You “owned” the music only so long as you played it on those few machines that iTunes registered to your account.

Over the decade online competition certainly ramped up the heat on eMusic, and a few years ago they made a change that effectively raised prices. eMusic shifted from the one download equals one track model to a subscription of bulk download credits; some tracks became “Album Only” so that they could not be purchased separately. Some albums then required more credits than tracks – making them more expensive. But “coincidentally” at the same time, they also negotiated with Sony Music to put their back catalog into eMusic (but not current Sony music).

Just last month eMusic again announced another change: it was bringing in the UMG catalog … and changing the subscription model yet again. This time downloads and credits are out, dollars and cents are in, and prices are up.

And this time Beggar’s Banquet, Merge, Matador, and Domino were out; evidently the new label terms imposed by eMusic in the negotiations with UMG left them less than satisfied, and Spoon, Vampire Weekend, The National, and Arcade Fire  – icons of independent music – are no longer on eMusic.

It is hard to say why these changes are so bitter for those of us who have been on eMusic so long. Not many would argue with paying musicians more – if the price increases really benefited the musicians. That’s a big “if.” Even the addition of big label music isn’t that offensive to many; I like U2, Coldplay, and Bruce Springsteen as much as Arcade Fire, Matthew Shipp, and Youth Group.

The sour grapes come from the accumulated changes that are a direct result of Big Music dictating to music sites, musicians, and consumers exactly what, when, and for how much. Big Music wants control to maximize profits, control even at the expense of artists and fans. Free market libertarians may say that companies should be free to maximize their profits – hey, if you don’t agree with the company don’t buy their stuff. But when companies collude to control the market, laissez faire goes out the window. The Big 4 control over 77% of the music industry output … and how often do you see a price war between them? Have you ever seen a price war between them?

mp3.comThis isn’t the first time Big Music crushed the independents online; like eMusic one of my all-time favorite websites was the original allowed ANY musician to upload and distribute their music for free, and CDs were available for sale. The explosion of music that coalesced around that site was astonishing and global, and through it I found music and musicians that are valuable parts of my collection today. But when started to allow visitors to “store” their music online in private account lockers – any music, even Big Music – then Big Music crushed the site into oblivion with endless legal actions. There has never been a site like since, sadly.

eMusic is just chasing iTunes; their board or management is under the delusion that they must do so to be profitable. And to chase iTunes you have to have Big Music on your site; otherwise 77% of your potential audience has no reason to stop by your web store. That puts Big Music in the driver seat; if you need their music you play their tune – period.

Has anyone on their board or in their management ever stopped to think that if Amazon, Walmart, and even the labels’ own sites are not beating iTunes it is nigh on insane that eMusic will? Or even compete successfully against those other services? That for some bizarre reason music lovers will flock to be tied into a monthly subscription purchase plan that has no streaming, no rentals, no backups, nada – just downloads? That mainstream music lovers will appreciate that any cash left in their accounts more than 48 cents will disappear every 30 days? That the big singles are not only more expensive than others but many are album only? eMusic has made the subscription model so carking that even the hardcore music lovers are giving up on it. As are the independent music labels.

The changes to eMusic were made by eMusic – yes, to get the big labels, but they could have walked away. They could have said “no.” eMusic could have realized that their 400,000 subscribers put up with a dumb subscription plan, poor customer service, and glitchy software because they loved music and appreciated a site that let them explore. They could have valued their customers by realizing that they had a community of music lovers 400,000 strong – and that iTunes doesn’t. They could have worked to improve their catalog selections, yes, but also to fight for the rights of their customers – providing music with fair and rational pricing, allowing them to own the music they purchase, keeping it backed up and safe for them, and allowing them to download when and where they wanted.

400,000 is a drop in the bucket, I guess, even when those 400,000 are likely to be some of the most dedicated, loyal customers you could find. Even when those 400,000 spend vast amounts of their free time reviewing for, posting on, and hacking your website with custom toolbars, file downloaders, and Greasemonkey scripts to make your website more enjoyable to use. No, 400,000 ambassadors promoting your web store is not enough compared to the millions using iTunes that a.) use it because their MP3 player or cell phone locks them into it; b.) don’t spend time exploring music, just buying the latest, greatest hits; c.) shop there only because all of their friends and family that fall into “a” and “b” shop there; and/or d.) think Apple is cool.

I haven’t left eMusic yet, but there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to stay. The money saved by the very slightly lower prices is no where near compensation for the burdensome, anti-consumer subscription model left in place.

Loop Guru is no longer on eMusic either.