The end of eMusic and me

Last week I cancelled my subscription to the eMusic digital music service, a subscription I paid for faithfully for over ten years. I spent a few years of my blogging life writing about eMusic as a subscriber, so it’s appropriate to mark the end of my subscription with one final post.

eMusic has gone through many business models over the years, but at the time I joined it was a would-be solution for people who wanted to listen to lots of music, especially music out of the mainstream, but had only a limited budget to pay for it. Operating in the post-Napster era, eMusic focused on people who wanted to download tracks and albums as MP3 files, and would commit to pay at least $10 a month for the privilege. Initially the service allowed “unlimited” downloads for one fixed price. This was after the major music labels had sued Napster into submission for offering a similar service at no charge (and without authorization by copyright holders, of course), so even with the promise of payment no major labels were willing to sign up. The offering was thus limited to independent music labels, and even then much of the music available was only marginally appealing (to put it politely).

eMusic’s history since then can be summed up as adapting to the realities of the music business by compromising on the original vision of “all you can listen to, one fixed price”. First, people who tested the limits of “unlimited downloads” were put on a diet—eMusic’s obligation to pay per-track royalties meant that heavy downloaders cost more to eMusic than their subscription fees brought in. Then (after being acquired by a private equity firm) eMusic put fixed limits on the number of tracks that could be downloaded per month. Even with the download limits per-track prices were still well under what mainstream services like iTunes and Amazon were offering, so major labels still refused to participate and eMusic was still focused almost exclusively on independent labels.

That focus was blurred when eMusic was finally able to attract major label releases by Sony, at the expense of imposing a major price increase on users. At the time only older releases were available, not current releases, but later eMusic further revamped their pricing, including the introduction of “album pricing” (i.e., purchasing an album at a fixed price and not track by track), in an ultimately successful attempt to persuade more major labels to offer more releases on eMusic. Today most albums on eMusic are only slightly less than what they cost on Amazon or iTunes.

Through all of this I maintained my eMusic subscription. So why am I quitting now? First, eMusic’s business model no longer worked for me: I was paying over $10 per month for a subscription, and per eMusic’s traditional “use it or lose it” subscription model I was paying that whether I downloaded anything or not. More and more I just didn’t have time to evaluate which albums I wanted to download; a couple of months I forgot to download anything at all.

Second, eMusic’s original vision of “all the music you want, one fixed price”, the vision that was so attractive to avid listeners and then so compromised by business realities, has now been realized in the form of streaming services like Spotify. In the Napster era advances in broadband networking made it possible to download music tracks as MP3 files as an alternative to buying CDs, and the convenience of getting instant access to music drove adoption of digital music. Continued advances in networking make it possible to stream music straight to devices (even mobile devices on cellular networks) as an alternative to downloading MP3 files, and the ability to listen to (almost) any track instantly without an additional purchase is driving adoption of streaming services.1

Thus as soon as I cancelled my eMusic subscription I upgraded my Spotify subscription from the $5 per month “unlimited” level (which I used for ad-free listening on my laptop while at work) to the $10 per month “premium” level, which provides ad-free listening on all devices, including smartphones and tablets. The major remaining barrier to widespread streaming for myself and others has been the fear of blowing through cellular data plan limits while listening in the car or otherwise away from home. One carrier, T-Mobile, is trying to remove that barrier by exempting selected streaming services from data limits; it’s no coincidence that I’m considering switching to T-Mobile in the coming months.

However even if I switch I’ll still be stuck in the past to a certain degree, since unlike many nowadays I actually pay for the music I listen to: The “new normal” for young people is to listen to ad-supported streaming services, whether in the form of the free Spotify plan, “Internet radio” services like Pandora, and iTunes Radio, or music tracks uploaded to YouTube. What this trend means for the music industry in the future is a bigger story; maybe I’ll come back to it another day. In the meantime I’ll reserve my MP3 purchases (just as I’ve been reserving my CD purchases) only for music that’s special to me, or that I can’t get any other way.


1. The trend to streaming has also been accelerated by a feature of copyright law in the US and elsewhere that mandates much lower per-track royalties for streaming services than for download services like eMusic. This makes it possible for an “all you can eat” streaming service to at least have a shot at profitability, something that was impossible for the original eMusic unlimited download service.

10 thoughts on “The end of eMusic and me

  1. splaestro

    The timing of your decision is interesting–just this weekend (26Sep2014) eMusic announced that they’re “going back to [their] roots” in independent music: http://www.emusic.com/messageboard/viewTopic.html?topicId=317945#1687706

    Apparently this means dropping major label catalogs but not bringing back the fixed-price-all-you-can-download model (that’s never gonna happen, as you’ve pointed out). It’s not yet exactly clear which parts of their catalog are going away.

    Like you were, I’ve been a long-time subscriber but increasingly have less and less time to download MP3s. For me part of it has been how annoyingly Windows-centric the interface between their website and download managers has become. There were some things about the major label acquisitions that I liked, and this latest change may be the end of my subscription.

  2. hecker Post author

    Thanks for stopping by! i too got the letter from eMusic about the change in direction. I honestly don’t see how they’re going to make money under the new model, but I do see why they made the change: Streaming services have basically killed the market for MP3 downloads of major label popular music–I mean, if iTunes downloads are going down (as I believe they are) then eMusic has no hope of success in that market. I guess their plan is to go after the people who still want MP3s, people who are more likely to listen to music from non-mainstream acts and labels. I think that’s a very small market, but maybe if they cut costs to the bone they could make it profitable.

  3. Piixl

    I am pretty upset about the changes. I have been a subscriber since 2008 and the Sony catalog thing shocked me but I ended up liking it. I was working on my digital collection of classic stuff that wasn’t available before. So many albums that I had on my save list disappeared. I too am considering whether or not to keep my subscription. I am also surprised that not more people are talking about it or that eMusic didn’t elaborate more.

    1. hecker Post author

      Thanks for commenting! Regarding people talking about the changes, I suspect those eMusic subscribers who actually pay attention to eMusic goings-on are burned out from all the changes in strategic direction, and most non-subscribers to eMusic have forgotten about eMusic entirely. I’m actually surprised that the latest strategy change got some press in the New York Times.

  4. Flahute

    I’ve also been a long, long-time subscriber … and I too am considering dropping my subscription. The biggest problem for me, however, is the way eMusic implemented the dropping of major labels. Apparently, to them, this includes dropping independent labels whose only tie to the majors is distribution … so they’ve dropped catalogues from independent labels like Epitaph, ANTI-, Hellcat, Burning Heart, Minty Fresh and many other independent labels distributed through the Alternative Distribution Alliance, which happens to be owned by WMG. Unfortunately, they haven’t even implemented this policy consistently. Other labels distributed through ADA are still available, at least in part, from labels like Saddle Creek and Mute, which arguably have bigger, more “mainstream” artists like Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Erasure, amongst others.

    1. hecker Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! The choice of labels is I suspect one of those things that likely makes sense in terms of the way eMusic licenses tracks; for example it may be that dropping major-distributed indie labels is an unfortunate side effect of terminating an overall agreement with that particular major label. However I completely agree that this makes no sense in terms of serving the actual customer, namely you and other remaining eMusic subscribers. I’m guessing this might be yet another example of how the music industry has been one of the most “customer-hostile” businesses around.

  5. Not you

    I’ve been with emusic for a long time but this change burns me up—they gave NO notice! At first it was a great way to find new bands. When they expanded their catalog I added a ton of artists into my que and stuck with them because of this–it was a nice mix of indie and established bands, but now it seems even some indie bands aren’t there anymore.
    If I knew this was coming I’d of had a chance to download a couple of discs before the change. They REALLY must dislike their loyal customers. I’ve been thinking of how much easier streaming is. Is Spotify better than Pandora?

    1. hecker Post author

      Thanks for commenting! eMusic has never been great on communicating changes to the service, both in terms of adequate notice and in terms of explaining exactly why they are making the changes and how. Recall what happened when they brought on Sony as the first major label.

      Regarding Spotify vs Pandora: I don’t use Pandora so I can’t offer any useful comments there. I think though that Pandora is primarily a radio-style streaming service, and doesn’t offer you the option of on-demand listening, i.e., listening only to a particular album like Spotify does. Which is better depends on what you’re using it for. Radio-style streaming is good for listening in your car (if you have a data plan for your phone that is suitable for that), on-demand listening I think is better for when you have to listen to that one track or album and won’t settle for anything less.

  6. David Armstrong

    I absolutely HATE the new move on the site… the new catalogue is utterly worthless to me. I told them I was canceling my account and they gave me like $80 credit to apply to music to stay. I agreed to try and you know what? I’ve still got about $75 to spend… NOTHING LEFT ON THEIR SITE INTERESTS ME!!! It’s just thousands and thousands of bad covers, karaoke cuts and random never-heard-of crap. Just my opinion, feel free to disagree, but they’ve lost my business for good… I hope iTunes appreciates their new customers.

    1. hecker Post author

      Thanks for commenting! “It’s just thousands and thousands of bad covers, karaoke cuts and random never-heard-of crap.” This reminds me of the original days of “unlimited” downloads, when the pickings were pretty slim.

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