Music Diary Review: eMusic Changes Pricing Structure in Face of Fourth Year with No Subscriber Growth

I have to admit – I USED eMusic more than once. And by ‘used’ I don’t just mean ‘make use of the service’ … I mean that I grabbed one of those ‘get 50 tracks free’ offers, canceled after the first month, and wait for the next email with another offer or 50 or 75 tracks for free.

But a few months ago I had used up all of my free tracks, and had more I wanted to grab … so I let my membership charge persist. And again, and again this past month. Then a week or so ago eMusic was changing their price plan and add 250,000 new songs a mere two days before my membership would auto-renew, so I chose to stick with it in order to evaluate the service anew after such a major revamp.

Troubled Times for eMusic
There is a saying from our seemingly endless economic downturn the ‘flat is the new profitable’. If it was that simple you could say that eMusic was booming. However, I remember a different view from a director at a former employer as we were in yet another semiconductor downturn. He said that it was all about how you managed the market share of your current and future products that mattered.

In that regard, eMusic is in a dismal state – a recent release shows them holding more or less flat since 2007. Of course, others have done worse, but most of them are out of business or close to it. During the ensuing year ‘cloud’ services like Pandora and Spotify have taken large chunks of the general listening audience away from both ‘normal’ radio and impulse buys on MP3 stores. Traditional subscription music services such as Zune have fallen on harder times, with Rhapsody abandoning streaming-only plans for integrated PC and mobile plans leading the way.

As for the ‘traditional’ MP3 store? (Did I really call something that the music industry has yet to fully accept ‘traditional’ as though it was an ancient standard?) iTunes and Amazon have pretty well sewn things up. Rhapsody has also gotten out of that game, and since the Zune and everything about it was a failure, that store is not even worth mentioning.

How does eMusic see things? Let’s take a look at a recent article about their status:

eMusic has not added any net subscribers since late-2007, according to numbers disclosed to Digital Music News this morning. Company representative Cathy Halgas Nevins pointed to a subscriber tally of “approximately 400,000,” which is exactly the same number shared by the company in December of 2007. “We have held our base since the economy went south,” Halgas Nevins relayed. “We have a new strategy in place for growth…”

That strategy has included the addition of lots of mainstream, major label content, a shift that seems to be alienating longtime users. Fittingly, eMusic boards are often venting grounds for unhappy subscribers – most of whom joined the service to access curated indie content, not the latest Coldplay and Train tunes.

The last section is actually rather important. In my earlier notes my focus was on the need for growth to compete, but perhaps being the best service for indie music is a sustainable approach. I know that what I like is the ability to find some obscure stuff, but in my case it is always a matter of getting something for cheaper at eMusic than I could at iTunes or Amazon.

But, for good or bad, eMusic wants to grow the service, and so they have recently unveiled a new structure. Let’s take a look at how things have changed since eMusic started courting the major labels, what the service offers now, and then I will dig through it myself.

eMusic Not Making Friends for the Last Year
When I finally took advantage of one of those 75 tracks for free emails, I was reminded why I never completed signup before: the process reminded me of something used by good ol’ MyPadMedia! You have to complete a long form and enter a credit card before you can even see the site content! Fortunately what is available made it very worthwhile …

The new change isn’t happening out of the blue: in the summer of 2009 eMusic brought on Sony as a publisher and added loads of tracks from the publisher. At the same time, they significantly increased prices. When they started out, it was $9.99 unlimited monthly, then became $9.99 for 40 songs you can keep, and at the exact same time as signing Sony they increased the lowest tier to $11.99 and decreased the songs to 24! That is the basic plan that existed until they changed over a couple of weeks ago.

The New Dollar-ized eMusic
ArsTechnica has a succinct overview of everything entailed in the new eMusic plan, so let’s take a look:

In an effort to attract a larger user base, digital music retailer eMusic has added music from three of the four largest music labels. However, the change comes with a move to a new tiered pricing plan and the elimination of its song “credits.”

eMusic boasted a catalog of over 10 million tracks, but focused largely on indie music. While the company added back-catalog songs from some major labels last year, new members searching for the latest major label content were frustrated by the holes in the catalog. “Those days are over,” eMusic CEO Adam Klein told Associated Press. “There will still be some blanks but it’ll be a small percentage.”

The new content will include newer songs from Sony and Warner, as well as tracks more than a year old from Universal. EMI is so far the lone holdout among the four largest major labels.

However, the expanded catalog comes with a price. Subscribers will no longer be given song credits, which could be used at any time for any song, and which worked out to be about 50¢ each. Instead, most indie tracks will sell for a flat 49¢, while major label content will be priced at 69¢, 79¢, or as high as 89¢ for the newest hits.

Most frustrating to longtime users, however, is the fact that credits not used for purchases do not roll over to the next month. Subscribers will either have to spend their credits on songs or essentially throw the money away if nothing of interest is available.

The company noted that prices are still 20 to 50 percent lower than tracks available from market leader iTunes. Apple finally relented to industry demands to offer tiered pricing in order to eliminate DRM early last year, and it now sells tracks at 69¢, 99¢, and $1.29 for chart-toppers. That also prompted tiered pricing to spread to nearly every major digital music retailer.

One thing not mentioned there is that simultaneous with adding all of those new tracks and changing to a money-based system, they have lost a serious chunk of their core indie publishers. According to the LA Times, these include: Merge (home of Arcade Fire, Spoon and Superchunk, among other indie-rock faves), Domino (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Franz Ferdinand) and the Beggars Group labels (The National, Vampire Weekend, Efterklang). As noted there and elsewhere, this is a terrible blow to faithful eMusic subscribers! Those folks who have stuck with the service through the years are losing Arcade Fire and getting Ke$ha? Not exactly a fair trade!

This brings me back to an earlier thought: if eMusic has focused so hard on getting big labels like Sony and Warner and now Universal in order to add subscribers, wouldn’t the fact that their numbers haven’t grown belie that the strategy isn’t working? And also that perhaps it is the wrong plan for their audience?

My Review of the New eMusic
As soon as the change happened I noticed a couple of things: first, that my ‘credits’ were turned into dollars, and second that I found a new release straight away. My prior experience was that new releases hit eMusic with some delay – if at all.

My second experience? Two days later my account was SUPPOSED to reset to the monthly allowance for purchasing songs. While I know that was in the emails I had gotten, I had hoped to grab some stuff before my current month expired – and losing so much money would have felt like a punch in the stomach! Yet instead, I found that I had ALL of the money I had before PLUS the new month’s allotment. I don’t expect the same thing next month, but it was a nice touch for now.

The eMusic interface has always been pretty easy to get around, and there haven’t been any changes to that part of things recently. You search, and get a solid breadth of recommendations in terms of artists, songs, and so on. You can click on the artist to get a full overview of their most popular recordings by album for studio, live, compilations, features, and so on. There are also the most popular songs featured for an easy sampling. They will also display any known upcoming live performances.

eMusic is an excellent music discovery interface. As an example, I was grabbing Kevin Eubanks’ Zen Food and looked around his ‘artist page’. In the ‘featured’ section I found the listing for Buckshot LeFonque, a Branford Marsalis led project that Eubanks appeared on back in 1994. It was something I had heard but never bought … until now!

Over the last week I have had an intermittent issue with accessing the site that I never had before. It only happens on the Mac and doesn’t care about which browser I use. I have managed to get in intermittently, but have no issue from Windows – and as I mention this is only recently. Eventually I worked my way up to completely trashing all saved data for my browsers when simply killing cookies and the cache didn’t work. And even with that I still have occasional issues where I’ll click on a link and wind up with that error, but can generally get around it easily enough.

I immediately bought two new releases: Kevin Eubanks’ Zen Food and Gary Husband’s Dirty & Beautiful, Vol. 1. That showed me something new – whereas before I would see a ‘download again’ button after a purchase, now I see a ‘purchase again’. This means that the site knows I bought it, but to satisfy the labels they have to force me to rebuy if something happens to my original. Digging through my older purchases I found that all of them now said the same thing. So the ability to re-download is now completely gone.

The debate over which MP3 store has the best sound quality for a given bitrate is something I really have no interest in discussing. I haven’t had any issues with what I have gotten from eMusic or found it particularly different from Amazon or iTunes. The two new recordings sounded excellent right away, and imported into iTunes without any issue or effort on my part. That is consistent with my prior experience, but with everything else I just had to check.

The other issue I always had when getting those 75 free tracks? Using them all! I have an extensive music library, and am not generally on the prowl for stuff I know about but don’t own – so I had hoped to divide the tracks up with my family. Sadly there was little they could ever find – I got a few Paul Simon and B52’s tracks for my wife, and my older son found some Greeley Estates stuff he liked, but not much else.

With the new system, things thus far haven’t improved very much based on all of us hunched around my laptop. Many new releases seem to lag the other sites enough that we already have them purchased, and for my older son the items he liked before have gone the way of too many other indie artists on the site. In that way the site is no more or less useful than before – whereas my wife said ‘well, at least now there is stuff I like’, my older son said ‘there USED to be stuff I liked!’.

So where does that leave me? We have more money for less downloads, technical issues, removed features, new labels that are everywhere and the loss of some unique artists. It is hard to see that as anything but a failure. Yet, starting with a mere $26 in credit, I have already bought two new releases and still have the vast majority of funds remaining! So perhaps a success in pricing and a failure otherwise?

There remains little doubt that the pricing is still attractive in spite of the increases over the last few years – however you absolutely have to use all of the money each month or it disappears! Given the state of music, that is harder than it seems, making the value proposition linked directly to your ability to spend all of your money each month.

Would I recommend eMusic to friends? Yes and No. I would recommend checking it out, determining how much use you would make of the site, and then perhaps giving it a one month trial. For the $12 fee you will likely be able to buy two full albums, which is a decent return on the investment.

Where to sign up:

Price: $11.99/month or more

What I Like: More new music; Better breadth of artists and catalogs

What Needs Improvement: Still much less content than iTunes or Amazon; Losing non-mainstream artists and labels really hurts the appeal; Loss of rollover credits feels punitive; Technical issues with site are a hassle; Overall value is worse

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