Today I logged into my eMusic account to discover that — for at least the third time since I became a user — their pricing structure is changing.
I haven’t really thought this out, and it’s probably a case of sour grapes, but I need to get some things off my chest.
Years ago when I first signed up for the MP3 service, I got unlimited downloads for $9.99 a month. Admittedly, that was a steal. But, then again, the number of high- or even mid-profile artists whose music was available on the site at that time was scant, especially for the mainstream listener.
Until last year, I got 40 downloads a month for $9.99, still a heck of a bargain.
And until recently, I was getting 30 downloads a month for $11.99, which, while a considerable downgrade from my previous plans, was at least a good deal compared to the outrageously priced alternatives such as iTunes.
Starting next month, it appears that they’re giving me what, on average, will amount to roughly 20 downloads per month for $11.99. It’s tough to say exactly, because the per-song price now varies, whereas before every song counted as one credit. But at best, I’ll get 28 songs, assuming all I care about are obscure outtakes from Third World vuvuzela bands.
OK, yeah. It’s still better than iTunes. As they helpfully point out in their explanation to users, “Under the new currency pricing system, eMusic members will enjoy savings of 20%-50% compared to iTunes’ a la carte prices.”
I suppose if that’s all eMusic wants to be, maybe they can turn it into a marketing slogan: “eMusic! Hey, it’s better than iTunes!”
Way to aim high, guys.
Listen, eMusic. I get it. You’re a business. You’re trying to make money. That’s fair.
And I’m sure the addition of the Universal Music Group catalog — which, ostensibly, is what prompted the change — will be swell. That’s a lot of music, some 250,000 tracks in all, many of which might even be worth hearing.
But aren’t we losing track of the larger point here?
This shouldn’t be about eMusic offering an alternative to iTunes and other Internet-based music retailers. It should be about digital distribution being an alternative to brick-and-mortar shops.
Ten or 15 years ago, I’d drive to my local store and shell out about $10 to $12 for a CD, which typically included 12-15 songs. That works out to about 75 cents per track. That price-tag covered the cost of recording, the artists’ royalties, the copyright fees, the marketing and promotional efforts and, of course, a hefty cut for the bloated music industry to line its pockets with.
But it also covered the cost of CD production, artwork and packaging, worldwide shipping and distribution, and a tidy little profit for the retailer itself. Those costs are no longer necessary.
And yet I’m still being asked to pay 70 to 80 cents per track? What gives?
I have my theories.
For example, a big part of it, probably, is that because digital downloads allow me to pick and choose the tracks I want, the labels can no longer force me to pay for the filler. After all, when you’re no longer able to charge for the chaff, you have to mark up the wheat.
(Of course, this model disrespects artists, who overwhelmingly continue to write, record and release songs as albums, presumably intended to be heard in their entirety, and arguably encourages throwaway culture by elevating the hit single above more “serious” works, but that’s a whole other discussion.)
Still, it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that it all boils down to something obscenely simple. Namely, that the major record labels simply aren’t willing to let go of the outrageous profit margins they grew accustomed to in the CD era.
And I guess that’s what bothers me most. At one time, eMusic wasn’t just an alternative to iTunes (which arguably started this whole mess by capitulating to label demands for higher prices). It was an alternative to the whole fat-and-happy, self-interested corporate culture of an increasingly soulless industry that cared about its consumers even less than it did about its artists. At least, it was a thorn in its side. At best, it was a catalyst for change.
Or at least I thought so.
So maybe the record industry won’t be brought to its knees today, or tomorrow, or maybe not the next day, either. But isn’t it inevitable? Isn’t the writing on the wall? The way I see it, you either evolve or you die, and for all the lip service the major labels give to change, they’re ultimately the same as they’ve always been: A wildly overgrown, woefully inefficient and largely unnecessary middleman.
Oh, and eMusic? It might be worth keeping something in mind. You’re a middleman, too.
Good luck with that.