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Beggars, Domino and Merge quit eMusic

By | Published on Thursday 18 November 2010

Three significant independent record companies pulled out of eMusic yesterday, accusing the download service of unfavourably altering their terms in order to placate Universal Music.

For years, eMusic, one of the first digital music platforms to market, was known as the muso’s download service. Focused exclusively on independent record companies, offering bespoke editorial around the music it stocked, and based around a bulk-buy subscription model, where users get a certain number of downloads a month in return for a monthly subscription fee, eMusic may have been primarily of interest to a niche audience, but that audience loved it.

However, eMusic’s focus on indie labels was more out of necessity than choice. It was a digital rights management free MP3-based service, and for years major record companies refused to sell their music without crippling DRM in place. And even once the majors had got over their self-harming obsession with DRM, most still had problems with the eMusic model, which didn’t allow for variable pricing (something they’d just finally got from iTunes) and where, because of the bulk buy principle, unit prices for tracks were generally lower.

Nevertheless, Sony Music did sign up, making some of its catalogue available to eMusic in some territories. Warner followed earlier this year and Universal last month.

But at the same time as confirming its Universal deal, eMusic also announced it was changing its system. Previously users paid a monthly subscription and got a certain number of credits, each credit getting you a track. Moving forward songs will have a monetary rather than credit value, so a user’s monthly subscription fee will simply manifest itself as an equivalent figure in dollars, euros or pounds for members to spend on music. The new system, of course, gives Universal the potential for variable pricing.

It’s the new system, and the terms around it, that has pissed off Domino, Merge and the Beggars Group, which includes labels like 4AD and Matador. Beggars issued a statement yesterday confirming it was bailing on eMusic as a result of the changes, explaining: “As those of you who buy our music from eMusic will know by now, our music will very shortly no longer be available from that site. We wish this hadn’t happened, but as eMusic has brought major labels on board, they have changed the terms on which they deal with labels in certain ways, some of which we have found impossible to accept, in our own interests, those of our artists, and ultimately those of their fans”.

It continued: “We have loved eMusic, and the support it has given to our music, but it was the dedicated home for independent music and is, in our view, not that any more. You will continue to find our music on many other great sites and stores, we encourage you to visit them, or ask us where”.

In its email to subscribers, eMusic wrote: “As we prepare for the largest catalogue addition ever to eMusic in the US – 250,000 new tracks! – and to make it possible for similar additions in the UK, Europe and Canada, we want to be up front with our loyal indie fans and provide advance notice that music from Domino, Merge and the Beggars Group family of labels will no longer be available on eMusic as of 18 Nov 2010 pending further discussion”.

It continued: “This is as heartbreaking to us as it is to you. Please know we have done everything we could to keep them from leaving. Forging deals with our label partners can be pretty complex. As many of you know, labels have come and gone over the years, and we hope to see these labels back soon. For those of you wondering if this means eMusic is losing its focus, rest assured, we’re still the place you go to find the records that hover under the radar, records that represent clear artistic vision – and the records that we find inspiring on both major and indie labels, regardless of how many albums were sold. Let us prove it to you!”

Losing three such significant independents in one go, and in particular the whole Beggars Group, is a big blow for a download service that has made much of its indie credentials over the years. Some subscribers are sure to leave. But it’s possible the arrival of largish catalogues of music from the major labels makes eMusic much more attractive to a much bigger audience, which will bring in new customers to replace departing musos and then some.

A spokesman for eMusic told Digital Music News earlier this week that they had a “new strategy in place for growth” after admitting the company currently had about 400,000 subscribers, pretty much the same number as three years ago. Though said spokesman also added that, in the context of the global recession of the last two years, to have stayed flat in terms of overall subscriber numbers is an achievement.