eMusic + Sony = A Bad Deal For Music Fans?

A few months ago, I suggested that eMusic may well be the world’s best indie music store. It seems changes are afoot to broaden its appeal and position it as a rival to more mainstream services like iTunes.

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eMusic’s monthly subscription model, where you pay a set fee each month for X amount of MP3s, has always set it apart from the more conventional pay-as-you-go services. It’s cheaper per MP3 file, which meant it was utilised far more by indie labels than by majors, scared away by the smaller revenues. It also stood apart with its distinct editorial style, rich with information about the artists and focused on helping you find something new and unknown. It’s pretty much the web equivalent of the record store guru and like a bricks-and-mortar store, it’s attracted a loyal following over the years.

It seems that eMusic isn’t happy with being the indie store of choice online and recently announced a deal with Sony to release back catalogue material (over two years old) on imprints including Columbia, Epic, Arista and Jive. So expect Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, as well as mainstream pop artists, to be rubbing shoulders with artists on labels like Matador, Bella Union and Kill Rock Stars. eMusic announced via their 17Dots blog (strapline: “notes from the digital underground”) that they would be “focused on drawing (or creating) connections between the small indie records that we live and die by and the big classic records that got us so into music in the first place”.

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So far, so good: why the uproar from loyal subscribers? Simultaneously to the Sony deal, eMusic announced that US users would receive half the downloads they were currently enjoying for their monthly fee. Chief Executive Danny Stein told The New York Times that the company had been looking to meet calls from the independent labels for revenue increases and had been “looking for a catalyzing event to do it, and we think introducing this vast, quality catalogue from Sony is that event”. To the vocal core on eMusic’s message boards, it’s more that they’re being charged for something they don’t want and never asked for.

I don’t blame eMusic (or indeed Sony) for this move; times are tough and companies have to diversify in order to survive. Saying that, I download and enjoy a lot of independent music that eMusic makes easily accessible to me for a great price – it’s almost been enough to prise me away from my precious CD collection. If I want albums by legacy artists like those on Columbia, I’ll go to HMV’s two for £10 section or iTunes. eMusic may exist as a niche store, serving a relatively small (400,000) customer base, but it stood apart from the crowded download store market because it feels like a unique selection of music curated and delivered with passion.

There’s a lot of speculation flying around about what this all means. It could be great: indie labels who’ve avoided or left eMusic could join up if there’s more money available, making an even more desirable resource to fans of alternative music. Or, the other majors might follow Sony on to eMusic and swallow up this revenue, leaving the indies in the same position they’re in now.

What is certain is that we’re in interesting times for online music distribution, with companies desperately attempting to salvage whatever revenue streams they can when faced with a generation who, more than any before them, think that music is free. It would be a damn shame if eMusic found themselves ignored by the mainstream and abandoned by their loyal, long-time base of customers for not developing that side of the business.

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