eMusic to offer streaming?

5 minute read

In reading the recent New York Post article EMusic mulls sale as digital market shifts (pointed to by eMusic subscriber okierambler in a recent message board thread), the most interesting part to me was actually at the very end of the article:

Sources said eMusic's backers ... are also seriously considering adding a streaming component in a bid to build upon its recent growth. ... According to sources, the streaming component would be a value-added feature for premium subscribers. The thinking is that the economics of a download-only model and a streaming-alone model don't work on their own, but putting them together in a tiered system could help retain subscribers.

I think adding a streaming option would be a great idea, not as a substitute for downloading but rather as an easy way to audition albums before deciding whether or not to spend my (limited) downloads on them. I wrote a lengthy blog post on this topic back in October (Should eMusic offer streaming?) discussing the pros and cons of this. I doubt my post influenced (or was even read by) anyone at eMusic, but it’s nonetheless gratifying to see eMusic apparently considering integrating streaming capability into the service.

I’m curious as to whether anyone else subscribing to eMusic shares my opinion on this, or whether people are looking to Spotify or other ad-supported or freemium services to provide your streaming fix. In this connection it’s unclear what any potential eMusic streaming service would look like. Here are some open questions along with my speculations and opinions to supplement my earlier thoughts:

Standalone service vs. tied to current eMusic service. The New York Post article claims the proposal is to offer streaming as an add-on to the current service, not as a standalone service. I think this is the best way to approach it—position eMusic streaming as a useful option to enable easier music discovery for eMusic subscribers, not as a competitor to Spotify, etc.

Extra-cost option vs. bundled into existing plans. The New York Post article is unclear on this point; however the phrase value-added feature for premium subscribers implies that streaming would be bundled into the overall eMusic subscription price for the higher-priced plans, and not offered at all for the Lite, Basic, or (maybe) Plus plans. I think bundling makes sense if streaming were positioned as a aid to music discovery for people who listen to and download a lot, and not as a substitute for downloading.

Right now I’m paying for a combination of the eMusic Basic plan (annual) and a $5/month Napster subscription for streaming (and some extra downloads — though remembering to actually download them is a PITA). If eMusic were to offer streaming I’d happily drop Napster and upgrade my eMusic plan to a Plus or even Premium plan. (I skipped getting a Plus plan when the recent price increases hit because of concern about wasting the extra downloads on stuff I wouldn’t like that much. Being able to try before I buy via streaming helps alleviate that concern.)

Unlimited streaming vs. a cap on streamed tracks. Of course I’d like any eMusic streaming option to not have a fixed limit on streams per month. However if eMusic has to pay streaming royalties on a per-track basis then it might make sense for it to impose a monthly limit on streams per subscriber. Since I’d be using streaming primarily to try out stuff before I download, I could probably live with a maximum cap of (say) 10 times the number of my download credits, e.g., 500 streamed tracks per month to go with a Premium plan offering 50 download credits.

Streaming tracks vs. (only) streaming albums. Would eMusic allow streaming individual tracks without restriction (other than a possible cap on streams per month), or would eMusic and/or the labels try to bring into the streaming world the concept of album only tracks (i.e., not allowing you to stream particular tracks unless you streamed the entire album)?

If eMusic allowed streaming individual tracks on an a la carte basis then labels might see this as a way for subscribers to evade the album only restrictions, especially for albums with a small number of tracks. (Don’t download that 2-track electronic release for 12 credits, just stream it instead.) On the other hand, to my knowledge no other streaming service implements album only restrictions of any kind, and I suspect the business and royalty model for streaming is different enough to make such restrictions unnecessary or at least not desirable.

Tied to PC vs. available on smartphones. The conservative approach would be for eMusic to implement streaming only in the context of the current web-based download service. For example, if you had the streaming option then the Listen to this album and Listen to this song buttons on an album page might be configured to play the full (streamed) album or track instead of just 30-second samples (as at present).

eMusic might also offer a standalone streaming app for smartphones, like the various iPhone apps for Spotify, etc. However I doubt that eMusic is eager to compete directly with (or be compared to) the streaming-only services, and there would be a number of non-trivial business issues that would have to be dealt with in creating an eMusic offering for mobile devices. Also, I think mobile streaming is more useful as a replacement for terrestrial and satellite radio than as an adjunct to a download service. I think that if eMusic does offer streaming that it won’t be for mobile devices, at least initially.

So, my final prediction: Sometime in 2010 eMusic will offer streaming as a bundled feature of the Premium and Connoisseur plans (but not Lite, Basic, or Plus). It will not cost anything extra, however introduction of streaming may occur in conjunction with a further round of (relatively small) plan price increases, possibly associated with adding more major label content. For those eMusic subscribers who have streaming, it will happen transparently using the existing Listen to this album and Listen to this song buttons on album pages. Such subscribers will be able to stream any album or individual track on eMusic, without any restrictions except possibly for a cap on total streams per month that is tied to the number of plan downloads.

There will not be an option to stream to smartphones or similar mobile devices (e.g., e-book readers with wireless capability), with the possible exception of devices that connect via wifi and have web browsers that provide equivalent support for eMusic downloading and streaming to that of standard PCs. (However even this may be restricted in some cases for business reasons.)

Your thoughts?