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eMusic subscribers sound off

In a company blog post on Sunday, eMusic CEO Danny Stein shared some exciting news with the site’s 400,000 subscribers: songs from Sony Music’s catalog would soon be available to download. But he didn’t mention the bad news: most subscribers will end up paying the same amount and getting fewer downloads per month.

I didn’t know much about eMusic before this announcement, but my colleague Ben Levisohn has been a subscriber for a while – he likes the range of independent artists you can find on the service that others like Rhapsody and Napster don’t offer. Ben doesn’t see much in this Sony deal for him, since it brings mostly mainstream pop and rock he tends to shy away from. But like it or not, he’s going to end up paying for the new material, since his monthly allowance of songs for $11.99 just dropped from 40 to 30 – meaning he’ll effectively pay 40 cents a track rather than 30.

eMusic has offered a range of pricing options in the past, and each one has been affected differently. Some subscribers who were paying $14.99 per month for 65 downloads can now only get 37 downloads – a 78% price increase. Rather than outline these changes in the aforementioned blog post, the company directed users to a separate page to see “how this change affects your account.”

Many subscribers are unhappy about the new arrangement, and they’re letting the company know how they feel in the comment section of chief executive Stein’s blog post. The entry now has more than 490 comments, and from my unscientific count the majority of them are negative. I noticed at least a dozen comments from subscribers who say they’re leaving. Here’s a sampling:

Aaron Batista writes:

The emusic pricing structure has allowed me to be musically adventurous, but once it changes I will have to be more conservative with my credits. This will limit emusic’s value as a way for new artists to get heard.

ColtraneWasGod writes:

I wanted Sony back catalogue, I could buy a lot of it at Amazon MP3 Store for $5-$7 per album already, since that’s a big chunk of the “classic” bargain catalogue there.

kranky writes:

So I’m losing almost half my downloads but I’m gaining Hall & Oates — wow what a bleepin’ deal! Way to stick to the early adopters who built emusic.

Sam writes:

Having been a member since 2005, I’m on a 65/month at $15 plan. Now I will get 37/month for that same price, I’m told. Maybe it makes sense, in the aggregate, to drive away people like me.

Certainly, the nickels and dimes the company is charging per song are far below the 99 cent gold standard set by Apple’s iTunes, a price Sony, EMI, Universal, and Warner have grown accustomed to - if grudgingly. But eMusic is a different model, aimed at driving higher volumes of sales. And judging by the passionate responses in this comment thread, it appears to be supported by a community of dedicated consumers of music, not just the folks who drop by for the latest #1 hit.

So while Sony is bending to work with another Internet startup, the price hike indicates it’s unwilling to bend too far. It’s also evidence that eMusic may be out of touch with what its subscribers want — that, or as subscriber Sam suggests, it’s giving the less profitable customers the boot.

Update: I just spoke with eMusic spokeswoman Cathy Halgas Nevins. She has written an official response to the negative feedback in the eMusic message boards, which basically says the company is listening but has not changed its position: “All that we can ask is that you show some patience.” According to her, the price changes were requested by just about all the independent record labels that work with the site. The addition of the Sony catalog (which doesn’t go into effect until later in the year, by the way) only gave eMusic “an event where it makes sense” to raise prices, says Nevins. She adds that the company is not seeing many people canceling their subscriptions.

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