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eMusic: Helping to Make Independent Music Mainstream

eMusic logo eMusic offers more than 2,000,000 tracks from more than 13,000 labels. DRM free, mind you, and at high quality 192K VBR MP3 format. Not to mention every conceivable genre you can come up with (ambient trip-hop country?) Well, maybe not. Keep reading and find out what eMusic is about, what it offers and what it, unfortunately, does not.

The Plans:

Let’s look first at the damage to your eWallet. eMusic is a subscription service whereby you pay a flat fee per month and get a fixed number of downloads. The standard deals are

  • 30 songs/month for $9.99 ($0.33/song)
  • 50 songs/month for $14.99 ($0.30/song)
  • 75 songs/month for $19.99 ($0.27/song)

They also have, for existing subscribers, the connoisseur plans:

  • 100 songs/month for $24.99 ($0.25/song)
  • 200 songs/month for $49.99 ($0.25/song)
  • 300 songs/month for $74.99 ($0.25/song)

If you binge like myself and empty the bank in one visit, you can fill up on booster packs as well:

  • 10 songs for $5.99 ($0.60/song)
  • 30 songs for $14.99 ($0.50/song)
  • 50 songs for $19.99 ($0.40/song)

They have additional discounts for the standard deals if you pay for a yearly subscription (20% off) and a two-year subscription (25% off). All-in-all, the best deal is to buy a two-year subscription at 75 songs/month ($360), coming in at $0.20/song. There’s really no need to point out the good deal either of these are compared to iTunes, especially since you actually pay more than $0.99/song for DRM free music. So what’s the catch? Two things come into play here. First, is there rollover? Unfortunately, eMusic has decided to follow the paradigm of most cellular phone companies and not have rollover. This is a loose analogy, though, since I’m not going to frantically try and use all of my cell phone minutes before the month is up. It does, however, mean there is one more thing I have to put my ever dwindling attention on. Secondly, what kind of music can I choose from? (not really worth it for 2,000,000 performances of Beethoven’s 9th, eh?) Read on…

Daily free download at eMusic

The Music:

One of the arguments against eMusic is they don’t have mainstream music. Here’s what eMusic says on their About eMusic page: “eMusic focuses on selling music beyond the commercial mainstream in every genre, including rock, jazz, comedy, hip-hop, blues, classical, country, folk, children’s music, electronic, world, reggae and more.” Now I am completely responsible for my possible ignorance here, but what exactly is considered mainstream? Isn’t independent music becoming mainstream?? …in a lot of ways, we are responsible for what eMusic offers.I imagine the majority of the artists and labels that are on eMusic are the ones that are all about getting their music into the hands of the consumer using up-to-date technology, as well as supporting freedom in ownership. Also, eMusic encourages their subscribers to write their favorite artist or label and request they put their music on their site. So, in a lot of ways, we are responsible for what eMusic offers. We’re also, in the end, responsible for what is considered mainstream (no matter what American Idol gives us). It’s Web 2.0, baby!

Here’s a list of some of my favorite labels offered on eMusic (sorry, it’s a little electronic heavy): Third Man Records/V2 Music, Merge Records, Thrill Jockey, Ninja Tune, Ghostly International, Morr Music, and Delicious Vinyl / The Orchard. Represented from these labels are The White Stripes, Arcade Fire, Spoon, Tortoise, David Byrne, Trans Am, Bonobo, The Cinematic Orchestra, Amon Tobin, Lusine, Solvent, The Brand New Heavies, and The Pharcyde. To let eMusic themselver weigh in, we refer to their About eMusic page: “Top independent artists include familiar names such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Bob Marley and Creedence Clearwater Revival, established rule-breakers such as the Pixies, Lucinda Williams and Black Flag, and breaking new artists like Neko Case, the New Pornographers and Ying Yang Twins…eMusic’s label roster includes top sellers like Concord Music Group, Koch, Naxos and Beggars Group, and other well-known independents such as Epitaph, Touch and Go, Merge, Sun Records, Cooking Vinyl, Fantasy, Bloodshot, Blood and Fire, TVT, Nettwerk, Vice, Thrill Jockey, Fat Possum, Razor & Tie, Six Degrees, SST, Smithsonian Folkways, Stones Throw and more.”

We all know, however, that just having the music available isn’t nearly enough. How does it feel to browse their website? What kind of experience do they offer? - eMusic employee weblog

The Experience:

eMusic has a lot of stuff in place to help you find good music, including an eMagazine, articles, reviews and such. There’s a nice offering called the eMusic Dozen, which gives reviews of the top 12 albums fitting a specific topic, whether that be a genre, place or artist. To be completely honest, I haven’t really taken much advantage of the plethora of editorials they have. I think this comes from my impatience at reading about music when I should just be listening to it. You can hear more about that in the next section.

One of the best things eMusic has is a Neighbors page (similar to Last.Fm‘s Neighborhood), where based on your downloads and ratings they choose other subscribers who have similar tastes to you and let their downloads be your recommendations for new music. It’s really the interface that rocks here: you click on an artist, and it loads in the page their top ten songs and then plays them automatically, no external player required. This is drastically different to eMusic’s usual artist page, where you have to click on and listen to each track separately, with each track playing in an external player. One nice thing is the ability to re-download previously downloaded tracks, so you truly “own” the song (as long as eMusic lives).

one-month trial period with 25 free downloads

They also have a toolbar that can be installed in your browser, giving you quick and easy access to a lot of eMusic’s services, for example the daily free download, new music, and charts. The best option is the ability to quickly start some streaming internet radio (apparently by genre). Now I don’t know too much about the toolbar since they don’t have a version for Mac OS X (hello???), so some of you readers who do have experience with it ought to drop me a comment below.

Lastly, I want to point out that eMusic has a bit of free music available (besides their daily free download), as well as exclusive eMusic-only bonus tracks on select albums. Also, when downloading full albums, make sure and check that all of the songs are there. Sometimes, and I’m not sure why this is, they have missing songs.

The Wish List:

As great as eMusic is, there are a couple of things that I would love to see. I love new music, so anything that puts artists in front of my ears, not necessarily my eyes, makes a huge difference. The CD stores I frequented back in the day were the ones that allowed me to listen to whatever CD I wanted, for as long as I wanted. All that being said, a smooth and quick interface to the music is what really counts for me. eMusic lets you preview songs in 30 second samples of high quality audio, but being a big fan of electronic music, most of the time 30 second snippets of a song doesn’t tell me anything. So regarding the theme of the listening experience, here’s my wish list:

  • 1. Full song samples at lower quality audio
  • 2. Play the music from the browser (like on the Neighbors page)
  • 3. eMusic internet radio station

While there does exist a very cool website that combines existing streams with quick-click access to downloading the current playing artist on eMusic, it isn’t exclusively eMusic available songs. It would be really nice to tune into an eMusic radio station and know that whatever I hear I can get. And just for a little evidence of the effectiveness of this, eMusic put out a free music sampler (2006 Pitchfork Music Sampler) with artists on the sampler seeing a 28% increase in paid downloads after it’s release. Most of the music I get from eMusic currently comes from stuff I’ve heard on internet radio stations (in particular, soma fm). Again, I may be in the black here since I don’t have the toolbar. That Windows only thingy may already do this, and if so, then 3. becomes

  • 3′. Toolbar for MacOSX!!!

Internet Radio and eMusic

The Verdict:

Whether or not eMusic is right for you depends on your music buying pattern. It works for me mainly because I get most of my music per month from eMusic, and occasionally I’ll buy something eMusic doesn’t have on CD. Besides, I can get about 50-75 songs for the price of one CD (or a one-month Netflix subscription – imagine being able to keep the DVDs).

50-75 songs for the price of one CD

And I’m never going to run out of music (my Save For Later album list has about 50 albums on it). They are constantly adding new music and letting you know based on your download history what you might be interested in. Besides, you really can’t lose. Saving the best for last, you get a one-month trial period with 25 free downloads. So stop reading and start listening…

Have something to add? Send me a message on twitter or leave a comment below.

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