eMusic raises prices as it signs Sony deal

Some eMusic subscribers don't care that the company known for specializing in indie music has added catalog tracks from Sony, but they resent the price hike of more than 50 percent for some plans.

Music subscription service eMusic has always puzzled me. While it was the first site to offer DRM-free downloads, I never downloaded enough music to justify paying even the lowest subscription rate. The fact that it makes you navigate a long sign-up screen and enter a credit card number before showing you the song selection and other features of the site--even if you just want a free trial-- drives me nuts . But despite my skepticism, the site has some big fans among voracious consumers of indie music.

eMusic subscribers are not your typical music fans. Touchstone Pictures via IMDB

Judging from the angry comments on the site's message board, some of those fans are up in arms. The company announced a deal Monday with major label Sony to add catalog tracks--that is, music released more than two years ago--from Sony artists. But eMusic barely mentioned the fact that it's raising prices at the same time. Specifically:

The lowest-priced Basic subscription ($11.99) now offers only 24 tracks per month (50 cents per track) instead of 30 (40 cents per track). Existing customers will be grandfathered into the old 30-song allotment, according to an eMusic spokesperson cited by the Los Angeles Times.

The mid-tier Plus subscription goes from $14.99 to $15.89 and offers only 35 tracks (45 cents per track) instead of 50 (30 cents per track).

The high-end Premium subscription goes from $19.99 to $20.79 per month and offers only 50 tracks (42 cents per track) instead of 75 (27 cents per track).

Subscribers may be angry, but they shouldn't be surprised. eMusic has periodically raised prices since introducing an all-you-can eat download plan for $10 a month back in 2000. Just look at the prices in CNET's review from 2004 (updated in 2006), and you'll notice that the company has cut download allotments almost in half since the review was written.

Subscription-based music is still an experiment. The royalty structure of the music business was set up to sell individual physical recordings. It's easier to translate that business model to individual downloads than it is to subscriptions. Still, raising prices during the worst economy in more than 50 years doesn't strike me as the best idea.

What really seems to be throwing eMusic fans off, however, is the timing: fair or not, they're blaming the Sony deal for the price increase. Most eMusic fans I've heard from are real music nuts, and are there to sample a wide range of music from relatively unknown cutting-edge acts, not to download music they could find anywhere. Imagine the clerks in High Fidelity suddenly being told that their favorite mail-order distributor is raising prices, but in exchange will now let them order ABBA and Chili Peppers records just like the chain stores in the mall.

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