eMusic to relaunch MP3 subscription service

Indie-focused download site veers away from iTunes and its ilk to offer music with no copy locks attached.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
eMusic, one of the oldest names in digital music, will relaunch its music subscription service on Wednesday with an independent appeal dramatically different than its bigger rivals'.

As in its previous incarnation, the service will offer unprotected MP3 files from independent labels, a sharp contrast from services such as Apple Computer's iTunes or Microsoft's new MSN Music store, all of which wrap their songs in copy protection.

The new version of the service has been redesigned to focus on helping people find their way through the often-confusing independent music world. The company's new owners, Dimensional Associates, have hired well-known music writers to pen columns and make recommendations, and created new tools to let subscribers see what other listeners with similar taste have purchased.

"Our notion is to go after the 30 percent or so of customers who buy things other than major-label music," David Pakman said.

That's not to say the site carries nothing but garage bands. The company has work from big-name artists, including the late Ray Charles, Big Star, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Moby and Beck, along with its thousands of lesser-known musicians.

With a different approach than many of its rivals, eMusic could help shake up a digital music market that is increasingly crowded with large companies offering similar products.

But the launch also represents a kind of coming-out party for Dimensional, an unconventional music partnership that hopes to build a network of loosely tied independent resources into a powerful business.

Dimensional is a partnership between Pakman, who founded MyPlay, an online music storage company sold to Bertelsmann in 2001, investment banker Danny Stein, venture capitalist Greg Scholl and former BMG general counsel Joel Shoenfeld. A wholly owned subsidiary of JDS Capital, its aim is to take services that have largely flown under the radar of bigger companies and build a larger company from the separate niches.

They've also purchased The Orchard, a company that represents and distributes small labels and unsigned artists, and the Digital Club Network, which records live shows at 21 clubs around the United States.

Those live shows, about 150 a month, are then posted on eMusic for download. Pakman said he had seen the value of this kind of music in his brief time at Bertelsmann, which overlapped with that company's investment in the old Napster file-swapping service.

A full 40 percent of searches at Napster were for bootlegs, live tracks and other rare material, Pakman said. That experience convinced him, and he convinced his new partners, that consumers would be eager to pay for access to live club versions of popular bands' work.

The new eMusic will keep the subscription prices that Dimensional imposed not long after buying the service. Tiers will include access to 40 songs a month for $10, 65 songs for $15, or 90 songs for $20 a month. All songs have been licensed from their independent labels.

Author and former Rolling Stone contributing editor Michael Azerrad will be editor in chief of the site, and section "curators" will include former New York Times pop critic Ann Powers, National Public Radio Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead, and Pulitzer-prize winning Newsday classical music critic Justin Davidson.