The eMusic / Sony Music deal is strictly for the label’s catalog, defined by both parties as recordings that are at least two years old.

At first the announcement looked like a win-win situation for eMusic and its subscribers. EMusic offers a fixed number of downloads per month depending on which rate plans users purchase.

For example, eMusic’s basic rate is 24 song downloads per month for $11.99 per month, with other rates offering more downloads for higher monthly payments.

However, eMusic subscribers logging into their accounts shortly after the service announced its deal with Sony quickly learned that eMusic is changing its rating structure. Plus, many subscribers discovered eMusic had changed the original subscription plans they had purchased – either lowering the number of downloads per month, raising prices, or both.

It’s no secret eMusic has courted the major record labels. Around the time Apple and EMI struck a deal in 2007 to offer DRM-free downloads, eMusic was reportedly seeking a similar arrangement.

EMusic CEO Danny Stein posted an open letter to subscribers announcing his company’s arrangement with Sony Music, while at the same time promising the company wouldn’t go mainstream.

“EMusic will always be an alternative to mass market digital music stores – a deeper, richer music shopping experience,” Stein wrote.

However, some folks aren’t all that impressed with the eMusic / Sony Music deal, or the new pricing structure that comes with it.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times Technology blog, Jon Healey noted that, while eMusic is still a bargain, it “doesn’t seem like the brave experiment in price elasticity that it used to be,” and noted the new pricing isn’t better than label CD clubs that offer catalog CDs at $7 per.

At first, subscriber reaction to the eMusic / Sony arrangement seemed to be mixed, with many subscribers posting messages welcoming major label content. But as the comment thread to Stein’s open letter grew, so did the number of customers dissing the deal.

“I think this sucks. I lose 13 downloads so people can download stuff like Springsteen which they can get on a hundred other sites,” wrote one subscriber. “You may say no, but I bet the number of independent artists added will shrink now that you will be adding major label stuff.”

“Very, very upset that prices went up,” wrote another customer. “I lost half of my credits each month so that a few big name artists could be included? I am here to find new underexposed artists, not pay more to help you attract customers with big names. Where’s that account-cancel button …”

At least one customer appeared amused at the deal, and questioned why major label artists would even want to be on eMusic.

Alicia Keys is so underrepped in the music that she needs to be on eMusic? Pearl Jam? Billy Joel for christmas sakes?! Are you kidding me?”

As eMusic prepares to welcome the new major label content, subscribers and industry watchers alike are questioning whether the service will eventually turn into another iTunes or Napster.

While that remains to be seen, it’s starting to look as if the download service that liked to position itself as the online version of a neighborhood record shop, has just moved a little closer to big-box territory. It may not be the WalMart of online music, but it’s definitely moved into the same parking lot.

Click here for the Los Angeles Times / Technology article.