EMusic Losing Its Indie Cred?

EMusic announced a deal with Sony Music earlier this week bringing the major label’s catalog to the subscription music download service long known for its catalog of both famous and obscure indie tunes. But at what cost?

The eMusic / Sony Music agreement 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.

But 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 on the Los Angeles Times Technology blog, Jon Healey said that although 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 offering catalog CDs at $7 each.

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 [sic] 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 used to position itself as a corner record shop online, 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.

OK Computer

Not everyone making music is aiming for a hit, or even a brush with the lower top 100 in sales. Instead of creating memorable songs and melodies, some folks are striving for the most innocuous music ever.

What we’re talking about here is background music, those forgettable tunes you hear while on hold or shopping for groceries – bland, empty instrumentals meant to make the experience more enjoyable without you realizing it. It’s music that’s not meant to be heard, say, the same way as U2, Toby Keith or Metallica. Instead, it’s music that’s intended to sooth the mind and spirit while you’re doing something else.

Now researchers at Spain’s University of Granada have come up with a computer program capable of creating such music. Called “Inmamusys,” the software enables people without any music experience to create compositions equal to the finest elevator songs anywhere.

According to the lead researcher, Inmamusys, which is an acronym for Intelligent Multiagent Music System, is designed to create a “pleasant, non-repetitive musical environment for anyone who has to be within earshot throughout the day,” reports ScienceDaily.

Apparently all users need to do is identify the kind of music desired and Inmamusys does the rest, thus giving folks without a single musical bone in their bodies a chance to be composers.

As an added business attraction, music created with the Inmamusys software is copyright-free, thus removing the expense of tracking royalties for music no one really wants to listen to anyway.

Sure, it sounds almost ridiculous, but background music is not only a big business, but a tough one as well. Stores want music that comforts shoppers, but doesn’t numb them so much they forget what they’re shopping for. Places like hospitals, airports and hotel lobbies rely on background music to drown out more annoying noises like tire screeches, sirens, low-flying aircraft and Kanye West talking about himself that can ruin an otherwise enjoyable experience.

Yes, the business of providing background music has changed dramatically (yet quietly) ever since the 1920s when Major General George O. Squier came up with a method to transmit signals over electrical lines – a system that Squier would eventually call Muzak.

But even Muzak has changed over the years. The company that’s synonymous with background music hasn’t made any of its own music in 25 years. Instead, Muzak consults other companies about background music needs, and works hard to shake the longtime image most folks associate with the company.

“Every day,” Muzak’s Shawn Moseley told NPR’s All Things Considered, “You have to have a conversation with somebody and say, ‘We’re not elevator music. We’re not your father’s Muzak.”