EMusic's MP3 Subscription Service: All You Can Eat for $10

The online music world has been hit by one jolt after another as the record labels go after anyone they can slap with the "music pirate" label. In response, the e-sharks smell blood and are circling. Internet music-distribution company EMusic sent out a press release recently making the assertion that "now that Napster and MP3.com are both on shaky legal ground, many downloadable-music fans are going to be looking for compelling, 'legitimate' alternatives."

But what makes EMusic believe that Napster fans, notorious for being college-age freeloaders, are going to want to grow up and go straight overnight? EMusic's Steve Curry says, "We're getting it from Napster users themselves. If the surveys are to be believed, the majority of them would be gladly willing to pay a monthly fee for an inexpensive and convenient downloadable-music service. The problem is that they are not being given a low-cost, customer-friendly alternative solution by the major labels. I think they also generally support the fact that artists should be compensated somehow for their work."

EMusic's plan is to offer customers music subscriptions for one flat monthly fee ($10) for all the MP3s they can absorb, while at the same time making sure that artists and labels are compensated fairly for their work. The company says that it has relationships with artists and more than 600 record labels, which means the EMusic Unlimited service can offer an expanding catalog of more than 125,000 tracks for download. "These aren't unsigned, unknown bands," claims EMusic, "but entire catalogs from leading indie labels such as Epitaph, Concord Jazz, Heiro, Jewel-Paula, SpinArt, Lookout, and Shanachie."

Some music-industry analysts have criticized the online subscription model (see previous story) as missing the mark. Curry explains that "the content/service that EMusic Unlimited offers is not for everyone. We're targeting the avid music fan, not the average music fan. These are people whose hobby is music, who know which labels different bands are on, who very well might be musicians themselves. They are not attracted by major-label content anyway, because they enjoy discovering new things on their own."

For these people, Curry says, file-sharing tools like Napster fall short because: too many of the files are poorly encoded, cut short, or not what they say they are; connections are frequently slow or unreliable; it's impossible to easily find entire albums, especially of non-mainstream stuff; you have to know what you're searching for—it doesn't really mimic the experience of a "discovery" in an Indie record store; there's no editorial guidance—no "If you like this, you should really try this new thing," no context in the form of band/discography/liner notes, no band involvement/connection (fanchats, contests, tour info, photos); and artists get paid (although Curry feels that this last point has been beaten to death and may not mean much).

Curry says that, in all of these cases, a legitimate subscription service addresses the problem by making sure the artist and label are parts of the equation. "It's amazing to these subscribers that they can check out the entire Epitaph catalog for $10/month, and that trying out a new world-music album by an artist they're not familiar with doesn't require a $16 investment each time. To them, it's not a question of 'Why would I pay for an MP3?' It's 'This is a valuable service, I can't believe it's so cheap!' "