EMusic and the Hoarding Instinct

Lots of bitterness out there about how today marks the end of the all-you-can-eat $9.95 music download program at emusic.com. As of today, your ten bucks “only” buys you forty tracks/month, i.e. 3-4 albums.

I was turned on to emusic days after starting to poke around the iTunes Music Store, and quickly discovered that not only was emusic much cheaper than ITMS, but it also had a catalog more in line with my tastes. Like most emusic users, I went on a month-long download binge after the announcement that the business model would change to resemble something remotely profitable. Today we are returned forcibly to our senses.

When you buy a CD or LP in meatspace, it’s a conscious choice, an investment. Assuming your choice was a good one, you listen to the recording dozens or hundreds of times, digging the artist’s work the way it was meant to be dug. In constrast, no one can possibly digest the unlimited amount of music one finds on a service like emusic. Greed, plus the collector’s urge to stockpile a massive MP3 collection mean that users replace genuine music appreciation with senseless hoarding. The compulsive MP3 collector trades depth for breadth, substance for quantity.

Of course, I know plenty of people who are serious music heads and who also have massive MP3 collections. MP3 hoarding does not make you musically shallow. But there are only so many hours in a day. Looked at another way: Even before MP3s, my personal LP and CD collection was large enough that I could go a year or two without repeating a track, assuming I had time to play a few albums per day. With MP3s, I could potentially go forever, because the collection always grows faster than my ability to digest it properly.

Once upon a time, getting a new album or two was an event. That album or artist consumed my attention for days or even weeks, and became indelibly associated with a passage in life. Getting a new album meant something. Today, I wake up in the morning to find 10 new albums on my hard drive. Newly acquired tracks are tiny blips on the radar. Even new albums I really love fail to make much of a dent in the consciousness; there’s just too much. Skipping stones, skimming the surface of the music universe. And yet I am still compelled to download 160 albums from emusic in a month. Why? Because of curiosity. Because I can. Because both giant hard drives and bandwidth are cheap. Because it’s a sickness.

The traditional music industry is unique in that its product can’t easily be sampled before purchase. A service like the old-school emusic lets you “graze” all you want, discard what you don’t like. Grazing is what makes MP3 music collecting fundamentally different from plumbing the record store. By that logic, emusic’s change of business plan is tantamount to the death of the service, as many people see it.

But not to me. The 30-second online previews you get at both ITMS and at emusic are usually enough to satisfy the grazing need. But beyond that, I think $10 for 40 tracks is a totally fair price. Yes, it’s more expensive than a P2P network. But I also get full, not partial albums. I get the cover art. I get a bit of editorial to give context to lesser-known artists. I get music recommendations that work, a place to stash music I’m contemplating, and I get the satisfaction of knowing I haven’t violated copyright. It’s a good price for a good service.

The way I see it, we’re saving $30-$40/month by not having a cable or dish hookup. We save more by not doing the cell phone thing (we have a 10-minute-per-month cell plan for emergencies only). I can easily justify the cost of emusic. It makes me smile, keeps me exposed to good music, and is still a way better deal than ITMS. I’m keeping my subscription.

Music: Big Star :: Strength of Strings

10 Replies to “EMusic and the Hoarding Instinct”

  1. I would rather emusic drop the facade of the monthly payment and just start charging reasonable rates for each album. Actually, I’d like to see emusic and ITMS team up and join catalogs… That would be fantastic.

    I was an old-time emusic user, and I loved the idea of randomly downloading new artists I had never heard of. I also downloaded lots of great stuff I had been looking to buy for years… I miss emusic’s old business model, but knew it would never last. I think their current BM is silly, and they should just join the other pay download sites with cheaper rates.

  2. The sex appeal is lost for me because I was never into music before emusic. My lack of interest was because I couldn’t afford to explore music’s richness and diversity at standard prices. My only exposure had been top40 radio and mtv. Hense the lack of interest. Emusic got me hooked, and continued to hook me because I could download albums as much as I wanted, listen to them and then trash them if I didn’t like it. There was no fear of wasted investment. It was like letting someone go into a shop and open the CDs before purchasing them. Once you do that its hard to do anything else.

    My ability to explore has just been severly restricted. I think I’ll turn to epitonic for exploration, and then meatspace shops for real albums.

    Who knows, maybe I’ll come crawling back to emusic, and ultimatly I do realize that my motivations are purely selfish… but who can blame me?

  3. > The sex appeal is lost for me because I was never into music before emusic.

    Gilbert, that’s a pretty amazing statement. The very fact that an online music service can now serve as a person’s introduction to the wider world of music is incredible to an older guy like me. It’s also quite a statement on the state of contemporary music and the industry that drives it – that you weren’t being exposed to any of this stuff through more standard channels.

  4. Sean, I agree 100%. The limitations seem really artificial – oops, you’ve exceeded your quota for the month. Wait for next month. How stupid is that! The customer is ready to spend more money and they’re just saying “well, upgrade your service plan.” Silly.

  5. “But I also get full, not partial albums.”

    I’d been an Emusic customer for almost 3 years, since buying Ethiopiques 8 from them back when they did sell individual albums. When they announced the change, I considered keeping my subscription as well, but the glitchiness of the download process pushed me over the edge — I wasn’t able to download complete albums anymore. Even before this, there had been some problems.

    I didn’t used to be an Emusic horder, but I sure became one during the last month of my subscription!

    “I get a bit of editorial to give context to lesser-known artists. I get music recommendations that work”

    Emusic never did as much in this area as they could have, but the AgentArts recommendations, discussion boards, and list features were a welcome step in the right direction… and they proceeded to roll back their improvements by removing the discussion boards so they wouldn’t have to hear people’s complaints about the new price plans.

    As I told Emusic in my cancellation letter:

    “In short, you’re asking customers to pay the same amount or more, in exchange for reduced value, nonexistent customer service, glitchy software, and a lot of frustration. You’re taking a terrific service and running it into the ground. I’d rather not watch the carnage.”

  6. Scot –

    It always struck me as odd that the radio played such an important role in young people’s lives not long before I was born (aka eons). It just never did it for me.

    Thank you Clear Channel.

    (We won’t get into Ticket Master and concerts… that’s another rant)

    Emusic really was the warm invitation that I needed to really experience music for the first time; and it was a revelation. Between the Jazz giants and the smaller indy-bands my eyes were openned to what music can be when it is created with heart and soul rather than corporate money machines. I finally “got it.”

    I’m kind of lost now over what to do with myself. I’m hoping I can find a good used CD store in the area. That way I can buy with relatively little danger of loss by selling back what I don’t like, and I may just start out buying hard-albums of the emusic that I really liked.

    Until then I have a lot of music that I feel the need to sort and cull from my HD. While I like the majority of what I downloaded, a good deal of it is useless hording, too.

  7. Great article. I have not used emusic in its glory days. I am wondering if I want to sign up now that the service is changed. But the free trial and as you said 4 albums a month for $10 ain’t bad.
    All these people whining about not being able to explore music. Goodness, don’t you have a pub where new bands play. Don’t they have any music festivals where your at. Used CD store! Dude, go get a library card. My little public library has many thousands of cd titles to enjoy.

  8. >”Goodness, don’t you have a pub where new bands play. Don’t they have any music festivals where your at. Used CD store! Dude, go get a library card. My little public library has many thousands of cd titles to enjoy.

    As a matter of fact, some of us DON”T have pubs, music festivals, and well-stocked public libraries. Emusic was a terrific opportunity for those of us in the hinterlands to feel a lot less cut off, a lot less deprived–dude.

  9. “I think $10 for 40 tracks is a totally fair price”

    You bet it’s a totally fair price–about $3 for a full album of music. Using this new pricing scheme, emusic, labels and artists can actually make money. I know that the concept of turning a profit may seem evil to some of the less knowledgable among us, but would you get up and go to work every day if you didn’t get paid? Of course you wouldn’t, no matter how much you liked your job. Artists and the nice people who run labels and emusic deserve to make a profit because they’re providing content we want at a fair price. With unlimited downloads, no one was making money, and if you aren’t making money in music, then you’re going to have to get a job somewhere else. If musicians couldn’t make a living, there wouldn’t be any music. Sure I wish everything were free, but I’m willing to pay emusic’s prices because they are very reasonable for everyone involved.

  10. jt, I agree with most of what you say, with a couple of caveats:

    > I know that the concept of turning a profit may seem evil to some of the less knowledgable among us,

    Music and profit are not mutually exclusive (we all want good artists to get paid), but music made for profit is seldom worth listening to. That’s a critical distinction.

    > the nice people who run labels

    No need to drag fictional entities into the discussion!

    > If musicians couldn’t make a living, there wouldn’t be any music.

    Hogwash. Great music has existed for millenia without the artists getting money, or much money anyway. The best music is always made for love, not for profit. The musician who expects to make a comfy living from his art is doing it for the wrong reasons. The best thing that could possibly happen to the pathetic excuse for a music scene that exists today would be to pull most of the profit out of it. I still believe artists should get paid, and I even believe labels should get paid (of course). But to talk about making music like it’s just another day job is to advocate music-for-profit. Music made under those conditions *sounds* like it was made under those conditions.

    > I’m willing to pay emusic’s prices because they are very reasonable for everyone involved.

    Totally agreed.

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