Category Archives: music

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.

Weekend listening: Space and the seasons

I’m back to posting weekend recommendations, but this time it’s for listening instead of reading. One nice benefit of Spotify and similar services is that you can go back and listen to all those albums you never got around to buying, or sample new music you don‘t yet want to buy—or, if you’re truly a child of the Internet, you may never buy at all but simply listen via audio streams or YouTube.1

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been listening to lately; unless otherwise indicated album links are to Spotify, track links are to YouTube:

  • Blows Against the Empire (Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship). This is a relic of that just-past-the-60’s time when NASA was still landing men on the moon and techies and hippies alike thought we would soon be living in space colonies at the L5 points or (in the case of this concept album) would “hijack the starship” and flee both the solar system and the Man. The players include members of Jefferson Airplane (caught halfway between “White Rabbit” and “We Built This City”), the Grateful Dead, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and musically it’s about what you’d expect from that combination.
  • Einstein on the Beach (Philip Glass). Written half a decade later, this opera (really a combined dance/theater piece) is more revolutionary, at least in musical terms, than Jefferson Airplane/Starship ever were. (In fact, if you’re a teenager who wants to really annoy your parents with your musical tastes, skip the gangsta rap and play this for a while.) For the full experience check out YouTube for excerpts from live performances.
  • The Campfire Headphase (Boards of Canada) (not on Spotify). The influence of minimalist music like that of Glass and others spread throughout popular culture in the 1980s and beyond, in particular influencing electronic dance music (EDM) and so-called intelligent dance music (IDM). Boards of Canada is an interesting example of homage to 1970s minimalism: They favor the sound of that era’s analog synthesizers and even occasionally incorporate counting numbers into their tracks (see for example “Aquarius” on Music Has the Right to Children), echoing the opening of Einstein on the Beach. Continuing today’s theme, in an interesting footnote to Felix Baumgartner’s recent parachute jump from near space several people paid homage to the official video for “Dayvan Cowboy” (which features an earlier record-setting jump) by resetting the track to footage of Baumgartner.
  • The Hawk Is Howling (Mogwai). Minimalism of a sort came to rock in the form of “post-rock”. The basic recipe: keep the guitars and drum, ditch the vocals and the verse-chorus-verse song structure, stretch the song out to two or three times the normal length, and give it a nonsensical and/or pretentious title. Mogwai is one of the best-known post-rock bands, and this is a representative album; for a taste of the musical results performed live check out “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” or (continuing my chosen theme) “Thank You Space Expert”.
  • Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (Max Richter). Taking a break from space, I conclude with Max Richter’s “remix” of one of the most over-played classical pieces of all time. The opening “Spring” tracks illustrate the method: Richter ditches the famous opening melody and focuses on just one of the phrases that occurs halfway through the original, repeating, modifying, and amplifying it.

1. Basic Spotify is free and ad-supported, while Spotify Unlimited for your PC costs $5 a month; I consider it one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. (Spotify Premium for your mobile device is even more fun, but I don’t recommend it unless you can tolerate the excessive cellular data charges you’re likely to run up.)

Changing my (blog) name, plus Plus

For those following this blog, note that I’ve changed the canonical site name from blog.hecker.org to frankhecker.com. Any links and feed URLs referencing the previous domain name will still work for the foreseeable future, but if and when you have time you may want to update your bookmark list, RSS newsreaders, and related information to reflect the new name.

A little history by way of background: I was around when the Internet was first being commercialized, and I had the opportunity to register hecker.com for myself if I really wanted to. However I passed because I didn’t have a server to associate with it and I thought I needed to be running an actual server in order to register the name (though I’m not sure that was the case even then). When I finally got around to having a personal server in the late 1990s I found that hecker.com had already been taken by a company that registered thousands of surname domains so that they could offer a shared domain service in which multiple people could have their own personal subdomains under a top-level domain: jane.smith.com, john.smith.com, and so on. So I settled on the next best thing and registered hecker.org instead for use as my primary domain, at the same time registering frankhecker.com (as well as the .org and .net variants) to prevent anyone else from getting it.

When I first started a blog I hosted it at hecker.org using custom blogging software. I later got tired of the management hassles involved, and moved my blog to WordPress.com, using the subdomain blog.hecker.org because I was still hosting other things at hecker.org and couldn’t afford to dedicate the entire domain just to my blog. Since then though the blog has assumed more importance as my public face to the world, and I regretted having a somewhat unusual domain name for it. I’ve therefore decided to adopt the conventional approach and use frankhecker.com as my primary blog name. (As noted above the old name of blog.hecker.org will continue to work, thanks to the magic of HTTP redirects.)

Note that my primary personal email address remains hecker@hecker.org; I have no plans to change that. However I can also receive email at frankhecker.com, so for example sending email to frank@frankhecker.com will get to the same inbox as hecker@hecker.org. I may switch over completely to frankhecker.com for all uses in future, but in the meantime there’s no need to update your address book.

In other news, I’m now on Google Plus so you can add me to one of your circles if you’d like. I’ve been meaning to try Google Plus out before now, but I use Google Apps for my email and related services, and Google Plus wasn’t added to Google Apps until this week. I’ll publish notices of new blog posts to Google Plus, and maybe some other stuff from time to time.

Greg Sandow on the future of classical music

I’ve been reading Greg Sandow‘s blog posts for a little while, and today checked out his riffs on the book he’s writing, Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music. I found the riff on chapter 3 (The Culture Ran Away From Us) the most interesting one thus far, because it discusses some of the questions around how the mainstream classical music community (institutions, performers, composers, and audience) has gotten separated from contemporary culture, in a way that other arts have not.

One of the most interesting questions is whether the mainstream classical music community will at some point link up again with the main strands of contemporary culture, or whether it will continue to be isolated and eventually risk collapse into irrelevance as its audience dwindles, perhaps to be replaced by a new community that springs up around what Sandow calls the alt-classical scene. You can see echoes of that question in the comments by Jerome Langguth and Sandow on the post announcing the riff.

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I’ve already expressed the opinion (near the end of my music and the theory of disruptive innovations post) that the alt-classical or indie classical movement will not likely give birth to a complete new community/tradition/movement, but instead will be co-opted into the general indie rock/pop movement as it continues to move up-market aesthetically. From that perspective the mainstream classical music community will remain isolated as it is today and will eventually see itself completely disrupted by whatever the indie movement evolves into.

However it’s also possible that the mainstream classical movement community could disrupt itself, as it were, and give birth to new institutions, musical forms, performance practices, business models, and so on that are relevant to today’s culture but still recognizably grounded in the classical tradition (while partaking of other traditions as well). This certainly seems to be what Sandow is working towards.

Not being that familiar with the nitty gritty of today’s classical music world, I can’t speak to all of Sandow’s ideas and whether they’re practical or likely to have the desired effect. However from a high-level perspective some of Clayton Christensen‘s ideas may be relevant here, especially those discussed in The Innovator’s Solution regarding how established companies can renew themselves and avoid being disrupted by more nimble competitors. Of particular relevance is Christensen’s recommendation that companies avoid trying to force wholesale changes in strategy at the level of the entire organization, and instead establish quasi-independent spin-offs that have the freedom to experiment with new business models, product strategies, and branding approaches without having to incur the burden of the cost structure and differing priorities of the parent organization.

In the context of classical music this would correspond to, for example, having symphony orchestras fund groups of performers that wanted to do new music performance, not simply in the form of one-time events or special series under the orchestra’s aegis, but as autonomous subsidiaries that would be free to bypass the orchestra’s bureaucracy and rules where appropriate and establish their own products, brands, audiences, and funding sources and mechanisms. I’ll be interested to see to what extent this is being done today and whether Sandow’s book will address this and related ideas.

eMusic to offer streaming?

In reading the recent New York Post article EMusic mulls sale as digital market shifts (pointed to by eMusic subscriber okierambler in a recent message board thread), the most interesting part to me was actually at the very end of the article:

Sources said eMusic’s backers … are also seriously considering adding a streaming component in a bid to build upon its recent growth.

… According to sources, the streaming component would be a value-added feature for premium subscribers.

The thinking is that the economics of a download-only model and a streaming-alone model don’t work on their own, but putting them together in a tiered system could help retain subscribers.

I think adding a streaming option would be a great idea, not as a substitute for downloading but rather as an easy way to audition albums before deciding whether or not to spend my (limited) downloads on them. I wrote a lengthy blog post on this topic back in October (Should eMusic offer streaming?) discussing the pros and cons of this. I doubt my post influenced (or was even read by) anyone at eMusic, but it’s nonetheless gratifying to see eMusic apparently considering integrating streaming capability into the service.

I’m curious as to whether anyone else subscribing to eMusic shares my opinion on this, or whether people are looking to Spotify or other ad-supported or freemium services to provide your streaming fix. In this connection it’s unclear what any potential eMusic streaming service would look like. Here are some open questions along with my speculations and opinions to supplement my earlier thoughts:

Standalone service vs. tied to current eMusic service. The New York Post article claims the proposal is to offer streaming as an add-on to the current service, not as a standalone service. I think this is the best way to approach it—position eMusic streaming as a useful option to enable easier music discovery for eMusic subscribers, not as a competitor to Spotify, etc.

Extra-cost option vs. bundled into existing plans. The New York Post article is unclear on this point; however the phrase value-added feature for premium subscribers implies that streaming would be bundled into the overall eMusic subscription price for the higher-priced plans, and not offered at all for the Lite, Basic, or (maybe) Plus plans. I think bundling makes sense if streaming were positioned as a aid to music discovery for people who listen to and download a lot, and not as a substitute for downloading.

Right now I’m paying for a combination of the eMusic Basic plan (annual) and a $5/month Napster subscription for streaming (and some extra downloads — though remembering to actually download them is a PITA). If eMusic were to offer streaming I’d happily drop Napster and upgrade my eMusic plan to a Plus or even Premium plan. (I skipped getting a Plus plan when the recent price increases hit because of concern about wasting the extra downloads on stuff I wouldn’t like that much. Being able to try before I buy via streaming helps alleviate that concern.)

Unlimited streaming vs. a cap on streamed tracks. Of course I’d like any eMusic streaming option to not have a fixed limit on streams per month. However if eMusic has to pay streaming royalties on a per-track basis then it might make sense for it to impose a monthly limit on streams per subscriber. Since I’d be using streaming primarily to try out stuff before I download, I could probably live with a maximum cap of (say) 10 times the number of my download credits, e.g., 500 streamed tracks per month to go with a Premium plan offering 50 download credits.

Streaming tracks vs. (only) streaming albums. Would eMusic allow streaming individual tracks without restriction (other than a possible cap on streams per month), or would eMusic and/or the labels try to bring into the streaming world the concept of album only tracks (i.e., not allowing you to stream particular tracks unless you streamed the entire album)?

If eMusic allowed streaming individual tracks on an a la carte basis then labels might see this as a way for subscribers to evade the album only restrictions, especially for albums with a small number of tracks. (Don’t download that 2-track electronic release for 12 credits, just stream it instead.) On the other hand, to my knowledge no other streaming service implements album only restrictions of any kind, and I suspect the business and royalty model for streaming is different enough to make such restrictions unnecessary or at least not desirable.

Tied to PC vs. available on smartphones. The conservative approach would be for eMusic to implement streaming only in the context of the current web-based download service. For example, if you had the streaming option then the Listen to this album and Listen to this song buttons on an album page might be configured to play the full (streamed) album or track instead of just 30-second samples (as at present).

eMusic might also offer a standalone streaming app for smartphones, like the various iPhone apps for Spotify, etc. However I doubt that eMusic is eager to compete directly with (or be compared to) the streaming-only services, and there would be a number of non-trivial business issues that would have to be dealt with in creating an eMusic offering for mobile devices. Also, I think mobile streaming is more useful as a replacement for terrestrial and satellite radio than as an adjunct to a download service. I think that if eMusic does offer streaming that it won’t be for mobile devices, at least initially.

So, my final prediction: Sometime in 2010 eMusic will offer streaming as a bundled feature of the Premium and Connoisseur plans (but not Lite, Basic, or Plus). It will not cost anything extra, however introduction of streaming may occur in conjunction with a further round of (relatively small) plan price increases, possibly associated with adding more major label content. For those eMusic subscribers who have streaming, it will happen transparently using the existing Listen to this album and Listen to this song buttons on album pages. Such subscribers will be able to stream any album or individual track on eMusic, without any restrictions except possibly for a cap on total streams per month that is tied to the number of plan downloads.

There will not be an option to stream to smartphones or similar mobile devices (e.g., e-book readers with wireless capability), with the possible exception of devices that connect via wifi and have web browsers that provide equivalent support for eMusic downloading and streaming to that of standard PCs. (However even this may be restricted in some cases for business reasons.)

Your thoughts?

Some kind of a party

A while back my copy of iTunes saw fit to present me (for the first time?) with a party playlist. I honestly can’t imagine any party that would have this as a playlist, but the bizarre randomness of it all intrigued me and prompted me to present the unexpurgated list to the world (with comments where appropriate and links to eMusic downloads
where available):

  • Eve Beglarian, Far Off Country (Four), performed by Maya Beiser, from Almost Human. I like this album but have a bit of aversion to spoken-word accompaniments to classical tracks, like those here.
  • Neutral Milk Hotel, Two-Headed Boy Part 2, from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. This album is legendary among people who know it, but I have to confess I feel more admiration for it than love.
  • Mogwai, I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead, from The Hawk Is Howling. I’m a major Mogwai fan, but on first listen I thought this was relatively minor Mogwai. I’ll have to give it another try.
  • Arvo Pärt, Nunc dimittis, performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, from Da pacem. I’ve been a big Pärt fan ever since picking up Litany (based on a recommendation in Wired, oddly enough).
  • Tristania, Angellore, from Widow’s Weeds. An experiment on my part in venturing into the melodic metal arena; not bad, but I’m still not that interested in metal.
  • M.I.A., Fire, Fire, from Arular. I was dining at Fatburger, which features a free jukebox with a net connection, when someone played Paper Planes from Kala. I decided to reciprocate by playing Galang Galang from this album.
  • Eve Beglarian, Far Off Country (One-Two), performed by Maya Beiser, from Almost Human. iTunes put two tracks from this album onto the list; I have no idea why.
  • Dumptruck, Better Of You, from For the Country (not on eMusic). In my opinion this is one of the best non-country country albums ever recorded, right up there with Meat Puppets II.
  • The Fall. An Older Lover etc, from Palace of Swords Reversed (not on eMusic). I have lots of Fall albums; this is one of the better ones.
  • Johann Johannsson, Englabörn, from Englabörn. I like Johannsson but don’t recall liking this album as much as IBM 1401: A User’s Manual.
  • Amiina, Saga, from Kurr. Another Icelandic production, not in the league of Bjork or Sigur Rós, but well worth listening to.
  • Team Dresch, Hate the Christian Right!, from Personal Best (not on eMusic). The Butchies have their charms but are no substitute for this band. Supposedly Team Dresch have reformed and are (maybe?) recording a new album; I always worry about this sort of thing but am definitely looking forward to it if it ever happens.
  • The Wedding Present, I’m Not Always So Stupid, from George Best Plus. I listened to this album only once; it was a bit too much of its time for me.
  • Super Furry Animals, Patience, from Rings Around The World. Another album I listened to only once, and need to try again.
  • Bocuma, Boards Of Canada, Music Has The Right To Children (not on eMusic). CollabNet didn’t really take off as a company, but I have to say that my co-workers there (who recommended this to me) had great taste in music.

The story of ‘swindleeeee!!!’

This used to be a page on my Swindleeeee! blog about eMusic; I subsequently moved it over as a page on my main personal blog when I merged the contents of Swindleeeee! into that blog. As part of a cleanup of my main blog I’m now moving it to be a regular blog post, in order to preserve it for posterity.

Ever since its founding eMusic has been repeatedly discovered by people who either don’t get the concept (“Hey, where’s Britney Spears?!”) and/or have severe difficulty using a computer and the Internet; these people also often seem to have a fuzzy grasp on such matters as grammar and spelling. And thus on August 11, 2003 (a date which will live in infamy), after experiencing problems with downloading music mrcat first uttered those immortal words, “E Music is SWindle.”

Despite the helpful replies of various eMusic customers mrcat’s problems continued unabated, and he soon resorted to repetition to add urgency to his pleas: “I still Cannot Download Music, WHYYYYY???? … Bring BAck my Money,E Music is SWindle. Bring Back my moneyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy”. After a final message from mrcat (“Emusic Swindle, just swindle. I am not happpyyyyy.”), Buddha-Of-Siberia was moved to reply, “hey mr.cat who cries swindleeeeee… … Stop Your Subscription and log out… and stay outeeeeee.” And thus a new word entered the world, and every subsequent user complaint or pseudo-complaint regarding eMusic was heralded with the ironic cry “eMusic is swindleeeee!!!!!!”

The Swindleeeee!!!!! FAQ

I just know you still have some questions…

  • How do you pronounce “swindleeeee”? Like the question of which end to open an egg or whether the sign of the cross should be made with two fingers or three, this is a matter of bitter controversy; wars have been fought over less. Some (including myself) believe that it should be pronounced like “swindle”, but prolonging the final “l” sound: “swin-duhhhhhl”. Others believe that it should be pronounced it as “swind-leeeee”, i.e., converting the normally silent ‘e’ into a long ‘e’ on the second syllable. Still others compromise on a hybrid pronounciation: “swin-duh-leeeee”. Feel free to choose whichever side you please, but be prepared to accept the consequences. For more information check out the eMusic message board thread “Poll – do you prefer SwindULLLLL or SwindLEEEEE?“.
  • How many “e”s are in “swindleeeee”? This varies from person to person. As noted above, the original coinage had six “e”s, but in my opinion five are sufficient to get the point across, unless you happen to be feeling especially feisty.
  • How many exclamation points should I use? In general I think it’s good practice to have as many exclamation points as there are “e”s.
  • Can I use “swindleeeee!!!!!” in referring to digital music services other than eMusic? Yes, but know that the correct use of the term is in the ironic sense (real irony, that is, not the Alanis Morissette kind); thus you should not use the term with respect to a competing service unless you feel that it is not in fact a swindle.