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Drew's Review of MP3 Download Site eMusic.com

Copyright © 2006 Andrew B. Davidson. All Rights Reserved.
Last Updated: December 2007
UPDATE JANUARY 2010: This review is now several years old. eMusic has announced that as of July 2009 they are increasing their prices (nearly doubling the price of tracks in some cases), as well as adding some major-label material from Sony and (as of January 2010) Warner record labels (see this blog post and this blog post at the offical eMusic blog, 17dots). This review is left here for historical purposes. After continuing site issues I no longer recommend eMusic to anyone.
— Drew
Hello, I was an eMusic.com subscriber for many years, and I wrote this article to inform people who wanted to know the full scoop, the pros and cons from a real user. Best regards, — Drew
eMusic.com is a music dowload service like iTunes Music Store, but it's a subscription service. For $10 a month you get 30 downloads, which turns out to be about 30 cents a download, far cheaper than iTunes.

Read the Deal Details.

It's really the grandmomma of MP3 download sites and it's been around since before iTunes Music Store. The pricing is great, just the right price for music downloads in my opinion. A typical 10-track album is $3 instead of $10. You can also get 75 tracks for about $20 per month (27 cents per track). If you pre-pay for a year you get a discount so the price per track will be about 21 cents per track.

If you like discovering new music, and you like having files that you can keep forever, burn to audio CD, and listen in your iPod or any other MP3 player, you'll like the fact that with eMusic you get regular, DRM-free high-quality MP3 files (192Kbps+ VBR, LAME -alt-preset-standard) without any DRM copying restrictions or "authorizing" nonsense. Even though iTunes is now offering a selection of DRM-free files, with eMusic the files are standard MP3s and so they will work in all MP3 players, not just iPods.

The main difference between eMusic and iTunes is that there is no major label music on eMusic. So you won't find any of the latest pop/rock hits, and only a tiny fraction of the major hits of the past. If you just want songs you are familiar with, eMusic is not the best choice. However, if you like to have a source for a wide variety of independent-label music at great prices, you should consider it. eMusic does have a lot of music: 2 million+ tracks from 9000+ labels.

They have a ton of music in all genres, from rock, pop, to jazz, reggae, classical, electronic, house, dance, trip hop, dub, comedy, and everything else. The only genre not represented is full-length audiobooks. Update September 2007: eMusic has added an entire audiobook section with over 1000 DRM-free audio books in standard MP3 format! However, audiobook downloads require an additional fee of $9.99 (for one book/month) or $19.99 (for two books/month). Under your regular music subscription, though, they have many spoken word CDs. as well as stand up comedy from great comedians like Mitch Hedberg and George Carlin.
And amazingly, a lot of the music on eMusic is also on iTunes! So people are out there just using iTunes are paying $1 per track (or being forced to buy the whole album) for the exact same songs, because they don't know about eMusic. eMusic probably doesn't have a lot that's not already on iTunes, but the price makes it much cheaper to experiment and try out new things.

What's Available On eMusic

eMusic has been getting a lot of new labels lately, like Ninja Tune and Greensleeves! Great stuff.
Here are some examples of the stuff they have:
Some labels you may have heard of (these are by no means the "most popular" or "best" labels on eMusic, they are just ones I chose off the top of my head)
  • Ninja Tune (96+ albums from artists such as Amon Tobin, Bonobo, The Cinematic Orchestra, The Herbaliser, Kid Koala, Up, Bustle & Out, DJ Food, and many more)
  • Greensleeves (299+ albums from reggae artists such as Scientist, Bounty Killer, King Tubby, Black Uhuru, Sizzla, Beenie Man, and many more)
  • Ubiquity Records (101+ albums, plus 31 more Latin jazz, Afro-Cuban, salsa on Cubop and 22 more classic funk, jazz and soul grooves on Luv N Haight)
  • Matador (222+ albums from artists such as Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Belle and Sebastian, Pavement, and many more)
  • OM Records (91+ albums from great artists like Kaskade and Mark Farina, and also including 30+ great compilations)
  • 4AD / Beggar's Group (139+ albums from artists such as The Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Bauhaus, Dead Can Dance, Lush, and many more)
  • Eighteenth Street Lounge (24 albums from such artists as Thievery Corporation, Ursula 1000, Thunderball, and more)
  • Stones Throw (40 albums)
  • Delicious Vinyl (30 albums from artists such as The Brand New Heavies)
  • TVT Records (180+ albums from such artists as Guided By Voices, Underworld, Sevendust, Nightmares On Wax, and more)
  • ... and many thousands more ...
Some random artists you may have heard of (these are by no means the "most popular" or "best" artists on eMusic, but they are awesome anyway!)
A special note about Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. The Dap Kings is Amy Winehouse's backing band, so if you like her song "Rehab" or that style in general, you should definitely check them out.
In addition to all of the above, there is a ton of alt, rock, jazz, blues, world, reggae, dub, international, bluegrass, country, folk, hip-hop, urban, new age, pop, soundtracks, classical, comedy, whatever ... all genres ... Don't let the above selection fool you. It was just whatever I was thinking of at the moment. There are far too many good ones to list here.
As one example, if you are into trance (or are curious about it), you will love eMusic! (As a side note: eMusic is perfect for getting into and sampling genres, because you can listen to a lot of tracks and just download the ones you like.) Trance artists include Shpongle, Infected Mushroom, Juno Reactor, Beat Bizarre, Hallucinogen, Cosmosis, X-Dream, and lots of compilations including this list from Hypnotic Records Various Artists. As well as more commercial trance like Tiesto.

What Rocks About eMusic

eMusic is really a great value compared to other download services like iTunes, especially if you find yourself buying music every month anyway. The main advantages are the huge variety and quantity of great music; inexpensive cost per track; high quality tagged MP3s with no DRM copying restrictions; and iPod compatibility.
If you are a music lover, you will soon discover that there is too much good music on eMusic to download it all. You will be waiting for your downloads to refresh and buying booster packs to tide you over. There are literally people out there with multiple maxed-out eMusic accounts because they keep wanting more and more!
The extra features that really make it a great value are the free re-downloads of your tracks while you are a subscriber. This means that you have access to your entire eMusic collection from any computer (e.g. home and work).
More great extras include an extensive wish list capability, free tracks and advance releases, and eMusic exclusives.
Their web site is usable and reliable, although now showing its age with the lack of a few features (like tags). There have been a few glitches here and there over the years but I have downloaded many many gigabytes of music from them with no problems. Their Customer Service has been very helpful when I have needed to contact them, which was rarely.
But in my opinion, one of the main reasons to support eMusic is to vote with your dollars for cheaper downloads and MP3s with no DRM copying restrictions. The eMusic model online music sales model is worthy of support! As it succeeds, more labels will sign up and make it even better.

What Sucks About eMusic Lately (December 2007)

OK, this part really sucks. I hate to say it, because I've been a long-timer subscriber and I like eMusic, but they have done some semi-shady stuff lately. I tend not to trust companies to do the right thing, ever, so I am resigned to simply ignore shadiness until it directly affects me. In the case of eMusic, so far it hasn't, but it sure does make it hard to unreservedly recommend eMusic the way they are going. It would be nice if companies would realize that their shadiness will hurt them in the long run, but I have yet to see a big company that gets this message. eMusic is no different.
The current shady issue (as of December 2007) is the Free Trial issue. It used to be that you could sign up for a free trial, download your 25 or 50 free MP3s and then cancel and not be charged anything. However, they have lately changed it so that you have to subscribe and be charged for your first month's subscription before you get any free MP3s. You do get your free MP3s, but they are apparently simply added to your first month's download quota instead of given to you before your subscription starts. This is a major change, and in fact there are still many parts of the eMusic site which discuss a "free trial" and a "trial period" which no longer exists. So be careful: if you sign up, you will be charged immediately. (This has not happened to me directly, but it is based on online discussion of their policies.) However, you can still cancel whenever you want, so unless you signed up for an annual plan, it will only cost you from $10-20 to try out eMusic (and you'll likely end up with anywhere from around 55 to 140 MP3s for that price). So, don't sign up for an annual plan first thing, give it a few months maybe to see if you like it!
Another shady issue lately has been upgrades. eMusic occasionally sends emails or makes offers to upgrade your account, but for some insane and completely stupid reason, they decided that the link in the email should instantly upgrade you if you click it. You are not given a confirmation page or warning that your credit card is about to be charged. This goes against every web ecommerce standard out there, and really makes people mad, so why they are doing it is completely beyond me. They have essentially trained me (and many others) to never, ever click any sort of "Upgrade" link, lest it instantly charge you (or worse, change your subscription plan). I'm just giving you the full scoop and if you decide not to sign up because of that, I don't blame you one bit.
Another major problem lately, not shadiness per se but just general cluelessness, was the eMusic Remote debacle. eMusic replaced their download manager program which worked fine for years, with a custom branded version of Firefox they created called eMusic Remote. This was to completely replace the eMusic Download Manager, however, they launched it with apparently very little testing, because many users had major problems getting it to work. It got so bad that even long-time users were cancelling their accounts over it; in fact, when you emailed customer support about any issue, you got a canned "how to cancel your account" email back by default. Luckily, they brought back the old download manager, but if you want to download audiobooks, I think you are required to use Remote.

What Sucks About eMusic

Everything had its downside, right? Here's what generally sucks about eMusic.
First, you need to PAY for your first month's subscription to get any free downloads. (There are no more "free trials" ... all "free" MP3s as of this writing in December 2007 require you to pay)
The main "downside" of eMusic is the lack of major label music. If you're aware of this when you sign up it's not bad, but many people apparently expect all their favorite Top 40 artists to be available. Until the major labels wise up and start allowing DRM-free downloads of their music, it's not going to happen. If you just want your classic rock and current top 40, you will be better off with iTunes or Napster or something. But if you want to experiment a little, and get some great music in the process, eMusic rocks.
A side effect of this downside is that it can take a little longer to find music that you want to download. You generally need to sample the tracks to see if they appeal to you, because you won't recognize them by name. This can take time. Most of the time, instead of searching for a particular artist name, you will generally browse the site and sample the tracks to find the ones you like.
One of the other things that sucks is you have to use your subscription downloads within 30 days or you lose them. They don't roll over to the next month. So set a reminder alarm to pop up every 30 days. Not every month; every 30 days exactly. This can bite the unwary, so be aware!
One annoying thing is that you get no indication that you've downloaded a track or album already (except by manually checking your Downloads list). This is not so bad, except many times I've spent time carefully evaluating an album, only to find out I had already downloaded it 2 years prior. The worst part of this, however, is when the same track appears on several albums (e.g. on an album and the corresponding single). If you download the track from each album separately, it will cost you a download.
One more annoying thing is that not all tracks are licensed for all worldwide regions. So if you are not in the USA, you may not be able to download all albums, and vice versa. They have separated out the various regional sites to a large extent, so most of the time (if you are in the USA) you won't even see the albums that you can't download, but it is still annoying when you come across one (via a link from an external site for example). If you are not in the USA, you will run across unavailable albums more frequently, unfortunately.
Another thing that is not so great is the track samples. Sometimes they are too short, or just misleading. This is especially noticeable for some electronic tracks can have several minutes of buildup before the main riff kicks in. However, the track samples (which are 30 seconds long) are adequate most of the time and they are also high-quality (approximately 192Kbps) which helps a lot. I also like the fact that the track samples use your standard audio player instead of Flash, so you can easily queue up a bunch of samples and continue to surf the web.
Another annoying thing is that they have albums on there that are either covers of, tributes to, or spoken word albums about popular mainstream major label artists. They even have the poor judgment to classify these under the original artist section! This results in the unwary downloading the album without realizing that it has none of the original music tracks, and sometimes no music at all! Luckily nowadays you will see several negative review below the albums, warning those not paying attention not to waste their downloads. Also it helps to just be aware that no major label music is on eMusic, so any albums with "Madonna" or "TLC" in the name are not by them!
Another slightly annoying thing is that they let you can see what other people have downloaded, and other people can see what you've downloaded. So to maintain your musical taste privacy, remember not to use your real name as your username.
Another minor thing is that the album art is low-resolution and does not automatically download, but luckily there are plenty of other websites that can locate higher-res album art.
The downsides are really minor compared to the upsides: cheap downloads, regular high-quality MP3s with no restrictions, re-download anytime for free, great list features, and a huge variety of music.
Their site makes it seem like you need to sign up to check out what they have available. You don't! To search or browse from the 25 Free MP3s page, click the "LOG IN" link in the upper right corner. You can then browse the site and listen to song snippets without an account. Or just click one of the artist or label names that I've linked above and start exploring!

The Deal

As of December 2007, here's the scoop:
  • eMusic.com is an auto-rebilling subscription service. You choose a plan when you sign up and they charge your credit card each month.
  • You can cancel anytime.
  • You can change your monthly plan whenever you like.
  • eMusic Basic plan is $9.99/month, you get 30 downloads per month.
  • eMusic Plus plan is $14.99/month, you get 50 downloads per month.
  • eMusic Premium plan is $19.99/month, you get 75 downloads per month.
  • Audiobook downloads are an additional $9.99 (for 1 book per month) or $19.99 per month (for 2 books per month). This is a separate subscription from your music subscription.
  • If you prepay for 1 year of service, you get 20% off the normal monthly price.
  • If you do not use your subscription downloads within 30 days, they expire. Unused downloads do not roll-over to the next month.
  • You can purchase "booster packs" of extra downloads which expire after 1 year 90 days (changed as of April 2008). The best deal is $19.99 for 50 extra downloads.
  • Your downloaded MP3 files are yours to keep forever, and you can re-download them anytime. for free as long as you are still a subscriber. They will still play even if you cancel your eMusic subscription.
  • The files you download are DRM-free high-quality MP3s that work in all MP3 players (including iPods), and can be burned to audio CDs.
  • You get 25 (or sometimes more) extra "free" downloads after you pay for your first month's subscription. This is a change from the way it used to be prior to November 2007 or so! It used to be that if you cancel before the free trial is over, your credit card will not be charged. But now, you pay immediately! You just gets some extra tracks your first month. Warning, if you just want to try out the service, don't immediately buy an annual subscription!
  • There are sometimes other goodies like free tracks and sometimes entire free albums.
Note: the above is just my summary and the deal can change at any time. Check the eMusic site for the real full details.

Summary

If you would like an excellent source of music and comedy, eMusic.com is worth checking out. For the price of 2 audio CDs per month ($20), or 20 iTunes downloads, you can get 75 tracks: about 7 CDs worth! And this will be 75 tracks you individually hand picked because you liked them, not CD's with 60% filler tracks.

But more importantly, you will be supporting a digital audio distribution system that hopefully will be the way things are done in the future. Vote with your dollars to keep music inexpensive and DRM-free.

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