With eMusic's addition of Sony catalog titles, the emergence of album pricing and frequent restrictions, the music download store is, in a few key aspects, a very different place. Once marked by its independent nature and outsider attitude, eMusic is now more like its competitors than ever before. The product has changed and requires customers to be more flexible and patient.

With this in mind: How much will the addition of Sony's catalog increase the value of the product? Will the amount of restrictions and costs confuse, distract or annoy customers? Will the customers who pledged to leave eMusic - and there have been many on message boards and in blog comments - actually cancel their subscriptions?

Upon its relaunch in 2004, eMusic became a favored place to buy inexpensive music from independent labels. The low prices encouraged discovery and taking risks on unknown artists. A subscription gives a fixed number of credits per period. Unused credits do not roll over to the next period, and additional credits (called "booster packs") can be purchased. Most tracks cost one credit. An album with 14 tracks tends to cost 14 credits while one with nine tracks would cost nine credits.

Subscription costs vary according to the number of tracks offered. The basic plan offers 24 credits for $11.99 ($0.50 per credit) to new subscribers. eMusic also offers a number of monthly plans that extend to 200 credits for $80.99 ($0.40 per credit). In addition, eMusic offers quarterly, bi-annual and annual plans with similar pre-credit prices. As rates have changed over the years, grandfathered accounts have experienced rate changes but enjoy better rates than new subscribers. Unused credits do not roll over to the next period, resulting in what is termed breakage. Unless the subscriber uses every credit, the effective cost of each purchase increases. A 12-credit album, for example, would cost $6 under the basic plan if the subscriber used the entire monthly credit allotment. If the subscriber let four of 24 credits expire, that same album would end up costing $7.19 due to breakage.

Over the last year, eMusic has added YouTube, Flickr and Wikipedia content to artist and album pages. It has improved its recommendation system. And it has added to its catalog by signing up labels like Barsuk, Saddle Creek, Warp, Righteous Babe, Domino, Fat Wreck Chords and Alligator Records.

Over the years the catalog has improved drastically and the recent addition of older Sony titles is a major milestone. But the combination of restrictions on Sony titles and the new, higher prices have added a complexity that pushes eMusic away from its original value proposition. What used to be a straightforward, predictable proposition is now an unpredictable collection of rules and prices. To be fair, album pricing at eMusic is in its earliest stages and growing pains are to be expected. In a statement to Billboard, the company said it realizes some albums do "not represent optimal customer experience or value" and is addressing these instances with its labels.

SELLING ALBUMS, NOT TRACKS

Judging from the pricing and tactics Sony has taken with its catalog, the major wants to sell albums, not individual tracks. Sony has taken steps to ensure subscribers either take an entire album, less desirable album tracks or nothing at all. eMusic is an album-oriented store but such restrictions are a major addition that changes the consumer experience. Overall, album pricing is not yet as simple as was described in a June 2009 interview with Wired.com. Explained eMusic CEO Danny Stein:

Our new pricing is simple. It's 12 credits per album, and that's if the album has 12 songs or more. Below that, it's by track, so an album with eight regular tracks will cost eight credits [each credit costs 42, 45, or 50 cents depending on which plan you have; credits expire after 30 days]. We'll eventually roll out some other price points for albums to give our labels more options.


A Billboard analysis of 276 Sony albums recently added to eMusic found 123 titles (44.6%) that offer a savings versus buying the tracks individually. Many of those titles, however, are compilations and box sets that would near or exceed a subscriber's monthly allotment. For albums with 16 or fewer tracks, 60.2% of the sample of 276 Sony titles offer album-pricing savings. That means many Sony titles have fewer than 12 tracks but cost 12 credits.

eMusic told Billboard it chose to implement album pricing along with the launch of the Sony catalog and that it expects that "album pricing will be implemented evenly across the catalogue by the end of the year." Because most of its customers buy albums, the company said, many labels had requested a form of album pricing, something that is standard at other download stores.

Beyond greater cost, a sizable portion of Sony's catalog comes with restrictions. Many albums, such as a swath of Aerosmith titles, are available only as full-album downloads (as they are at other stores). No individual tracks can be taken from those albums, and they cost 12 credits apiece even though some albums have as few as eight or nine songs. In the sample Sony titles, 54 albums (19.6%) cost more than one credit per track. Of those 54 albums, 43 of those have 12 or fewer tracks while 11 are double-albums or compilations.

Sony has made many of its hits - such as Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" and Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" - unavailable for single-track downloads. Twenty five of the 38 tracks on "The Essential Michael Jackson" are album-only downloads. Thirteen of the 18 tracks on Michael Jackson's "Number Ones" are album-only downloads. (In cases where there is only one album-only download, it would be entirely possible, though laborious, for an eMusic customer to buy some tracks at eMusic, acquire the restricted hits at Amazon.com or iTunes and end up saving money and credits.)

As is the case at other stores, restrictions can be heavy on some Sony jazz titles. "Sketches of Spain" by Miles Davis costs 12 credits for eight tracks (and 60 minutes of music) and three of its tracks are album-only downloads. "Bitches Brew" by Miles Davis has two tracks totaling 47 minutes of music - but the two tracks can only be downloaded as a pair and cost a total of 24 credits. Davis' "Kind of Blue" costs 12 credits for six tracks (and 55 minutes of music) and five of the six tracks and album-only downloads. When an entire album is purchased, tracks cost less at eMusic than at iTunes. But these Miles Davis titles have fewer album-only downloads at iTunes.

Not all Sony jazz titles are restricted or cost more than they would have in eMusic's earlier days. "Nerfetiti" by Miles Davis, however, costs 10 credits for 10 songs (and 66 minutes of music) and "Mingus Ah Um" by Charles Mingus costs 12 credits for 12 songs (and 72 minutes of music).

And higher prices are not restricted to Sony's jazz titles. A number of other titles have a standard 12-credit album cost but only a handful of songs. John Coltrane's "Lush Life" (Fantasy/Prestige) costs 12 credits for five songs (and 40 minutes of music). The album's title track is available through an album download. "Five Peace Band Live" by Chick Corea and John McLaughlin (Concord Jazz) costs 24 credits for 8 songs that total 139 minutes of music. All four songs on the album are album-only downloads. "Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods" by Dizzy Gillespie y Machito (Fantasy/Pablo) costs 12 credits for four songs that total 32 minutes of music. One of the four tracks is an album-only download, effectively bringing its cost to nine credits.

PRICE COMPARISON

Of course, a high price at eMusic is not necessarily high relative to other stores, only to what eMusic customers have grown accustomed to seeing and what many non-Sony albums cost. "Sketches of Spain," for example, costs $9.99 at both iTunes and Amazon.com. "Lush Life" costs $9.99 at iTunes and $9.49 at Amazon.com. At the cost of a $12-per-month subscription plan, "Lush Life" would cost $6.00 at eMusic (all scenarios mentioned include no breakage at eMusic, which is not the case). "Five Peace Band Live" costs $14.99 at Amazon.com and $19.99 at iTunes, and all eight tracks are album-only downloads at both stores. At eMusic, the title would cost about $12. Older Aerosmith albums cost $9.99 at Amazon.com and songs are not available as individual downloads. Those Aerosmith albums are not available at iTunes.

Although its album prices can be low, eMusic 12-credit album pricing is unevenly applied. For example, albums comprised of many short songs are perfect for album pricing but many obvious examples are quite expensive. Yet Guided By Voices' "Alien Lanes" has 28 tracks totaling 41 minutes but costs 28 credits. The group's "Best Of" compilation has 32 tracks totaling 76 minutes of music but costs 32 credits. But labels like Soundway and Blood & Fire have widely adopted album pricing on their albums with more than 12 tracks.

On the other hand, albums with few, lengthy tracks probably would have been cheaper in the past and may now have a full-album cost. "Monoliths and Dimensions," the new release by Sunn O)))), has four tracks totaling 54 minutes of music and costs 12 credits and three of the four tracks are album-only downloads. Just a few weeks ago, "Monoliths" cost four credits. Talvin Singh's new release "Calcutta Cyber Café" has only two tracks but totals 44 minutes. It costs a full 12 credits. Ali Akbar Khan's "Raag Malayalam," the most popular classical Indian album at eMusic as of Tuesday (July 7), now costs 12 credits (about $6) for one, 20-minute track. (It costs $9.99 at iTunes and $8.99 at Amazon.com, so even though eMusic would have been a far greater bargain in the past, it still has the lowest price of the three options.) Twelve-credit album pricing for a single, 20- to 30-minute track is now common for Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar and other classical Indian artists.

While less expensive than the most popular download stores, eMusic's higher prices and added restrictions have changed its overall product. The brand was built upon independent music, the ability to sample obscure artists at low prices and a lack of the sort of restrictions (DRM, album-only tracks) that are common at other stores. Now, eMusic is less an outsider and much more like its competitors. It can still differentiate itself through editorial, added content and recommendations. The value of those features will be tested as consumers weigh recent changes.