The Price of Free

I have been a fan of eMusic since I began subscribing over two years ago. They have been an excellent place to discover and obtain off-the-beaten path music and labels, without DRM restrictions, for a cost that touched on free – my most recent subscription worked out to $0.25 per download. That made the site not only a welcome alternative to iTunes but my go-to store for music that was either new and I wanted, or music that I was curious about and could explore economically. That eMusic did not carry the major labels was a plus; they competed against iTunes and by not just offering alternative prices but an alternative approach.

Now, not so much. I didn’t have any immediate reaction to their signing a deal with Sony to start offering back-catalogue music, nor to the mention that prices will go up slightly. I wanted to wait and see what that meant in the details and now that my subscription has been changed to their new offer, eMusic is far less of an alternative now, and that’s a loss, and will most likely mean they will lose me as a subscriber. The details are these; my per track cost has gone up to $0.42, modest in the scheme of things yet an increase of 68%. The plan has reduced my monthly download total from 100 to 50 tracks, which is a decrease in ease-of-use (it’s a good thing I’ve already downloaded the Ring in English) and so an added cost. The decrease in downloads gives me less resources to use for exploration – I don’t see how there will be the leftovers to indulge in unexpected, strange and wonderful music like R. Keenan Lawler‘s loving destruction and reconstruction of bluegrass. There are choices that eMusic offers that might ease these concerns, but they do so as minimally as possible. The lowest per-track cost possible is $0.40, through their 200 downloads/30 days plan, which is also $80.99 a month and thus prohibitive. They also offer some album-length recordings at a set download number of 12 tracks for the whole disc-equivalent, which may make The Ring in English viable still. The implementation of that idea falls well short of the stated goal, however.

A random browse through their “bins” shows problematic inconsistencies. The 90 tracks of Gotterdammerung can be downloaded as 60 credits, which is fair enough. But the four tracks of the JACK Quartet’s recording of Xenakis can be downloaded for . . . 12 credits, the same for Sunn O))) Monoliths & Dimensions. So music that used to cost me $1.00 and should now cost me $1.68 will actually cost $5.04. I may seem a consumer with a niggardly attitude, as this is not only cheap relative to iTunes but objectively cheap, but my point is that eMusic used to offer an alternative, and now it doesn’t. It’s actually worse when I look at some of the newly available music from Sony; Bitches Brew‘s seven tracks eat 24 credits, Live Evil is 24 credits for eight tracks, and Live at Philharmonic Hall (which I don’t own and would have considered) is 24 credits for six tracks! Strangely, the complete Ellington at Newport is also 24 credits, but for 40 tracks. Why? I don’t think it’s a question of the artist’s relative popularity; Dylan’s Blood on The Tracks is 10 credits for 10 tracks, and Blond on Blond is 12 credits for 14 tracks, while London Calling is 12 credits for 19 tracks. Something may be in error with servers, coding, etc.; Stanley Clarke’s School Days is six tracks, six credits, while his eponymous recording is six tracks, 12 credits – and eMusic has never had impeccable quality control.

But the real problem is one of philosophy and strategy, not per-download prices. eMusic is a subscription service, you commit to giving them cash and they offer regular delivery of something you desire; iTunes is a store where you buy something. If I desired music from Sony or UMG, I could buy it there. What I desired from eMusic was the opportunity to browse a sort of library, to take chances with my listening and expand my ears, experience and knowledge. I can understand that they would raise prices as a result of higher costs – they have done it before – but when the higher cost is for offering the sort of thing I could find anywhere else then they have become something different than what I wanted. For the record labels this is an easy choice, but of course one they still resist. They’ve recouped costs for this music and so every single download they sell is profit – it’s all digital so there’s no cost left in reproduction. But what’s in it for eMusic? The CEO indicates that they have been wanting to raise prices, and this gives them an ideal excuse.

Perhaps they do want to compete directly with iTunes, and that’s their choice. The price for them is turning themselves from one thing into another. I think their subscription model is brilliant and an essential corrective to the utopian tripe that comes from Chris Anderson. People may not want to pay for information, but information itself has no choice in the matter. And artists starve and, without the support of a university, think-tank or magazine, the work of intellectual creation requires vicious costs on a personal level (unfortunately, such institutional support trends firmly towards the vast, opaque middle of mediocrity, which I suppose is why the ideas they produce are so passionately mediocre). With eMusic, information is cheap, but not free, and in-line with the fact that producing music as become relatively cheap but will never be free, and the subscription model helps subsidize a lot of worthwhile music-making, keeping it cheap. The big labels seem to be slowly accepting that they have lost the fight against digital distribution, and slowly realizing that they can make money with it. They are still wedded to massive production costs, however, and clearly don’t have the intelligence and imagination to see anything else. I am not interested in subscribing to iTunes, and am concerned about just how far towards that model they will be moving. If the thing they have been no longer exists, that will certainly be my loss, and they will certainly lose me. I’m not sure they would notice, though.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.


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