The end of eMusic and me

4 minute read

Why I ended my 10+ year affair with the digital music service eMusic.

Last week I cancelled my subscription to the eMusic digital music service, a subscription I paid for faithfully for over ten years. I spent a few years of my blogging life writing about eMusic as a subscriber, so it’s appropriate to mark the end of my subscription with one final post.

eMusic has gone through many business models over the years, but at the time I joined it was a would-be solution for people who wanted to listen to lots of music, especially music out of the mainstream, but had only a limited budget to pay for it. Operating in the post-Napster era, eMusic focused on people who wanted to download tracks and albums as MP3 files, and would commit to pay at least $10 a month for the privilege. Initially the service allowed “unlimited” downloads for one fixed price. This was after the major music labels had sued Napster into submission for offering a similar service at no charge (and without authorization by copyright holders, of course), so even with the promise of payment no major labels were willing to sign up. The offering was thus limited to independent music labels, and even then much of the music available was only marginally appealing (to put it politely).

eMusic’s history since then can be summed up as adapting to the realities of the music business by compromising on the original vision of “all you can listen to, one fixed price”. First, people who tested the limits of “unlimited downloads” were put on a diet—eMusic’s obligation to pay per-track royalties meant that heavy downloaders cost more to eMusic than their subscription fees brought in. Then (after being acquired by a private equity firm) eMusic put fixed limits on the number of tracks that could be downloaded per month. Even with the download limits per-track prices were still well under what mainstream services like iTunes and Amazon were offering, so major labels still refused to participate and eMusic was still focused almost exclusively on independent labels.

That focus was blurred when eMusic was finally able to attract major label releases by Sony, at the expense of imposing a major price increase on users. At the time only older releases were available, not current releases, but later eMusic further revamped their pricing, including the introduction of “album pricing” (i.e., purchasing an album at a fixed price and not track by track), in an ultimately successful attempt to persuade more major labels to offer more releases on eMusic. Today most albums on eMusic are only slightly less than what they cost on Amazon or iTunes.

Through all of this I maintained my eMusic subscription. So why am I quitting now? First, eMusic’s business model no longer worked for me: I was paying over $10 per month for a subscription, and per eMusic’s traditional “use it or lose it” subscription model I was paying that whether I downloaded anything or not. More and more I just didn’t have time to evaluate which albums I wanted to download; a couple of months I forgot to download anything at all.

Second, eMusic’s original vision of “all the music you want, one fixed price”, the vision that was so attractive to avid listeners and then so compromised by business realities, has now been realized in the form of streaming services like Spotify. In the Napster era advances in broadband networking made it possible to download music tracks as MP3 files as an alternative to buying CDs, and the convenience of getting instant access to music drove adoption of digital music. Continued advances in networking make it possible to stream music straight to devices (even mobile devices on cellular networks) as an alternative to downloading MP3 files, and the ability to listen to (almost) any track instantly without an additional purchase is driving adoption of streaming services.1

Thus as soon as I cancelled my eMusic subscription I upgraded my Spotify subscription from the $5 per month “unlimited” level (which I used for ad-free listening on my laptop while at work) to the $10 per month “premium” level, which provides ad-free listening on all devices, including smartphones and tablets. The major remaining barrier to widespread streaming for myself and others has been the fear of blowing through cellular data plan limits while listening in the car or otherwise away from home. One carrier, T-Mobile, is trying to remove that barrier by exempting selected streaming services from data limits; it’s no coincidence that I’m considering switching to T-Mobile in the coming months.

However even if I switch I’ll still be stuck in the past to a certain degree, since unlike many nowadays I actually pay for the music I listen to: The “new normal” for young people is to listen to ad-supported streaming services, whether in the form of the free Spotify plan, “Internet radio” services like Pandora, and iTunes Radio, or music tracks uploaded to YouTube. What this trend means for the music industry in the future is a bigger story; maybe I’ll come back to it another day. In the meantime I’ll reserve my MP3 purchases (just as I’ve been reserving my CD purchases) only for music that’s special to me, or that I can’t get any other way.


  1. The trend to streaming has also been accelerated by a feature of copyright law in the US and elsewhere that mandates much lower per-track royalties for streaming services than for download services like eMusic. This makes it possible for an “all you can eat” streaming service to at least have a shot at profitability, something that was impossible for the original eMusic unlimited download service.