eMusic gets Universal Music catalog, overhauls song pricing

October 12, 2010

LadyGagaInMeatBe careful what you wish for because you might just get another major label’s catalog.

eMusic, the independent music lovers’ independent digital music site, is well, no longer that independent. As of November, it will now have music from the world’s number one music company Universal Music, adding more than 250,000 tracks to eMusic’s catalog bringing it to 10 million.

But with the big dog joining the pound eMusic has had to adjust its monthly subscription model. It will no longer offer a fixed number of song credits and will instead switch to good-old fashioned dollar and cents pricing for individual songs. For example right now a starter package of $11.99 will get you 24 song credits a month but going forward $11.99 a month will get you as many songs as $11.99 will buy. eMusic argues that their price points are on average 20 percent to 50 percent cheaper than iTunes or Amazon MP3 store which means many of their songs are around the 50 cent-mark.

This is an excerpt from the notice eMusic US subscribers got when they logged in today:

“New pricing in a nutshell”

“Under the new currency pricing system, eMusic members will enjoy savings of 20%-50% compared to iTunes a la carte prices. The majority of albums on eMusic will be priced from $5.19 – $8.99. Single track pricing for members will vary as follows:

○      $0.49 for most tracks currently in our catalog

○      $0.69 – $0.79 for more popular content

○      $0.89 for tracks that generally sell for $1.29 at iTunes

We won’t know where specific titles (or exactlyhow many) will fall in the categories above until November. But we think you’ll find that eMusic still offers the best deal out there on a consistent basis.

Yet the wider issue might be that eMusic could lose  its unique selling point as a independent music lovers primary destination as its changes to become more similar to mainstream music sites like iTunes. We’ve had at least one eMusic fan in the office make that very point. So they expect more  obscure indie rock bands with five fans and less Lady Gaga (pictured). It might be unfair to make that generalization about majors because  companies like Universal own many great independent labels with deep catalogs and rare songs — but perception is half the battle.  eMusic fans can expect more mainstream music CEO Adam Klein had promised in an interview with Reuters last month that he hoped to have all majors on board this fall — only EMI remains to join following earlier deals with Sony Music and Warner Music.

For its part eMusic is fairly honest about why it needs to make the changes now as it tells its users on its notification page:

“Q: I don’t want the additional content. Can I leave my account as is?

A: Sorry but all plans on eMusic will convert to currency pricing in November 2010. We know that some of our longtime members are on special plans that offer significant discounts. The truth is, eMusic can no longer sustain a business with these older plans. So all current members will be migrated to new Preferred plans that include a special loyalty bonus. We hope you bear with us until November to check out the savings offered by the new pricing system. We think you’ll find that eMusic still offers the best deal out there on a consistent basis.”

One comment

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I’ve had an eMusic account since 2006 and have endured several changes of plan, in other words substantial price increases. My original plan gave me tracks at just over 22¢ a piece; the price jumped to nearly 40¢ each when they signed up Sony — this after email promising that “Your old plan will be guaranteed as long as you keep your account active and in good standing.” Now, the price per track increases to a minimum of 49¢ — and, more to the point, I will be able to download less tracks per month even with my rather pathetic monthly loyalty bonus. What I liked about eMusic was the ability to download a lot of tracks with the general idea that, because of the low price, I didn’t have to love ’em all. That’s obviously no longer the operating principle.

I can only see this move by eMusic as a sign of desperation. Clearly, as admitted, the old business model is not working and it would appear that they’re not getting new subscribers with what they have on offer. Otherwise, why would it be necessary to risk alienating those of us who really should be grandfathered in with our original plans? There’s simply too many of us to support the expansionist plans without all-round price increases (for something we don’t really want, old mainstream music!)— and there are not enough new customers.

But, I’d argue, eMusic has analyzed the situation in a drastically wrong-headed radical way. Have they not heard of MOG and Rdio? We can stream any amount of music from Universal and every other major label plus many, many independents for a mere $5 a month. Why should we wish to pay considerably more just to own an mp3 copy? So many songs you only want to hear three or four times, if even that, and then that’s it, move on to something new. If, after streaming we still want to buy our own personal copy, we can get many mp3 albums from either Amazon or iTunes for only a dollar or two more than from eMusic. Why should we wish to be tethered to a subscription plan? Loyalty? I think not since eMusic has shown itself as fundamentally disloyal, not honoring promises of plans continuing and essentially deserting the original independent ethos.

Besides that one-two punch of MOG/Rdio and Amazon/iTunes, there are many other sources for digital music from podcasts to piracy to radio programming to SoundCloud plus iTunes is reportedly getting set with a streaming service and there’s one other 800-pound gorilla, Google, that you know isn’t going to sit quietly in the corner forever. A price increase from eMusic is moving counter to all the trends.

Ultimately, I think this move by eMusic is likely to prove to be the nail in its coffin because there is now no clear reason to pay a subscription every month whether one is looking for music or not, whether there’s anything you like that month, whether you’ve just lost your job and need to cut expenses — there are so many arguments against a higher priced subscription right now that you have to wonder just how desperate eMusic is. It is unlikely that I will continue my subscription and, until now, I’ve been pretty much the ideal customer, a ravenous music fanatic. I’m still a ravenous music fanatic, but eMusic is almost certainly no longer going to be where I look to satisfy my cravings.

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