At the risk of sounding like an old timer I’m going to tell you some Internet trivia that you might find hard to believe: iTunes was not the first online music service to sell downloadable songs for 99 cents. Back in 1998 a site called Good Noise started selling a small catalog of songs for just under a dollar. The iPod hadn’t even been born yet. In fact, Apple had just barely launched the iMac product line. It was a different world back then.
Good Noise eventually became eMusic and dropped the per song pricing in favor of a subscription model. While the structure of eMusic’s subscription pricing has changed over the years, it is still arguably the best digital music service around.
I’ve been a paying eMusic subscriber for many years, and here’s why:
- eMusic offers a huge selection of music in almost every imaginable genre. Unfortunately, most reviews of online music services tend to overlook eMusic because it specializes in music from independent labels. As a result you won’t find any Major Label artists. If you’re looking for music you hear on drive-time radio you’re probably better off sticking with iTunes.
On the other hand, if you have even the slightest bit of curiosity about music it’s hard not to be tempted by the eMusic. The catalog is over a million songs deep and rich with classics as well as the latest releases from a slew of indie rock faves. From John Coltrane to the Drive-By Truckers, eMusic offers a huge collection of songs.
- Great music at a reasonable price. eMusic currently offers several subscription rates beginning at $9.99 per month for 40 downloads. That’s around 25 cents per track. The price is cheaper if you opt for a plan with more downloads, or pre-pay a year in advance. I recently pre-paid for a mega-plan that cuts my cost per download to 17 cents. That’s not much more than those shady Russian mp3 sites that Dwight is always talking about.
While this may seem hard to believe, eMusic used to be even more of a bargain. For a couple of years the monthly subscription offered an unlimited number of downloads. While it was great for subscribers, it wasn’t a great business model. More importantly, it didn’t generate enough cash to cover artist royalties. While I grumbled when the eMusic all-you-can-eat plan died, I understand why it had to happen and I ultimately support the switch to a more reasonable subscription rate.
- No Digital Rights Management. All eMusic downloads are unprotected mp3 files encoded in a high quality variable bit-rate. That makes eMusic the rare non-Apple music service that offers iPod compatibility. It also means I have the freedom to play my music on any device that supports the standard mp3 format – which these days is just about everything, including the CD player in my car.
- Permanent access to your music library. Hard drive crash? Not a problem, just re-download your eMusic songs to your new hard drive. You can re-download songs as many times as you need to. This shouldn’t be a feature that sets eMusic apart — it should be standard for every online music service.
- Genre curators. For years the treasures of eMusic were not easily unearthed. It was sort of the digital equivalent of burrowing through the bins of a used record store, hoping to find one album that would make the hours of searching worthwhile. Recently, though, eMusic has employed a team writers who act as curators to the site’s many musical genres. The result has been some exceptional writing about the site’s huge collection of music, and a regular focus on noteworthy titles that might otherwise go unnoticed. In addition to being a great online music store, eMusic is now a pretty good online music publication as well.
When you look at what makes eMusic great, it all seems so simple. Great selection, reasonable prices, no DRM. It sort of makes you wonder how come no one else has tried this formula.
I think it all comes down to the RIAA’s unnatural fear of it’s own customers. Until the major labels can get over their DRM fixation and start trusting consumers with unprotected music, eMusic will remain the one true digital music service.
I just recently rejoined emusic after leaving a few years ago, and the limited downloads per month can be a bit weird — especially since they don’t roll over — to work with. Though to be fair, the “temporary upgrade” program is cheap, easy and has a cool name (booster pack!).
Also, I just had the experience of the new Tom Verlaine album being the exact amount of songs as I had downloads remaining with less than a week left for this month.
There are some other oddities that I should have probably noted in my article. For example, a download is a download, regardless of the length of the song. This means that certain songs/albums just don’t make sense in the context of the emusic subscription structure. For example, the Residents Commerical Album is available. Originally the Commerical Album was made of of 40 one minute songs. That would eat up an entire month of downloads. Worse yet, the expanded Commercial Album is now 50 songs.
This limitation works both ways. If you know what you’re looking for you can get A LOT of Jazz on a 40 download per month plan.
eMusic rocks. This month I got a Sonic Youth live album, an old Flaming Lips album, Triumph’s best album Allied Forces, and Black Flag’s Wasted Again. How much better can it get? All that for 20 bucks!