Hard News by Russell Brown


Our new strategy is to FAIL

Several times in the past few years, I have recommended the subscription music download service at eMusic.com. Indeed, at times I've asked readers to allow me to refer them to it, so I get bonus downloads.

And now, one of those readers, who works in the area of intellectual property, justifiably complains about being shafted by eMusic. He puts it so well, I'll quote at length:

As you are no doubt aware, eMusic have changed most of their plans to reduce available downloads and introduced album pricing. The main motiviation for this is securing rights to the Sony back catagloue (basically all Sony product other than stuff released in the last 2 years), which is eMusic's first real win with the major labels. However, this is coming at a cost to Australasian subscribers which seems hard to justify.

eMusic is no longer accepting new subscriptions from New Zealand or Australia although existing users can continue to access the service, although they can no longer purchase booster packs. In addition, the Sony back catalogue is not available to Australasian users and album pricing is not generally available to Australasian users (and in some cases, this works in eMusic's favour - e.g. an 8 track album with album-only songs costing 12 download credits). Some fairly ominous statements about the status of eMusic users from Australasia can be found here.

The net result for existing NZ and Australian users is a price hike with no apparent benefit - we are effectively cross-subsidising an improved service for US and (eventually, according to eMusic) Canadian and European users. It appears we have also lost the ability to claim free downloads for encouraging new members to join (although this has not been made explicit). Like the debacle with getting iTunes launched here, this seems to be yet another case of Australian and New Zealand consumers being left behind because our markets are too small (from a global standpoint) which means no one can be bothered with us.

I know you use eMusic's service and have recommended it to others - in fact, I was one of your referrals to the service. You may already know all this and I don't know what if anything you will do with this information, but as a fellow user and supporter of the service I thought I should send it through just in case.

As an aside, a commenter on eMusic's message boards also mentioned the paradoxical situation where we can purchase a CD from Amazon but not download music from Amazon's download service. This raises some interesting issues around copyright law and the law surrounding parallel importation, which I am considering looking into further - particularly in respect of the legality of circumventing territorial restrictions for paid music download services based on parallel importation exceptions to copyright law.

My view? Well, not everything's bad. Album pricing had to come: some indiepunk album with 20 tracks shouldn't be worth four times as much as a Sun Ra classic with five.

And minor shifts in pricing -- such as the jump last year in my Basic account from $US9.99 monthly to $US11.99 -- don't mean much to me. You get that volatility in the exchange rate anyway. And for the extra cost, I got an extra 10 tracks a month (although oddly, eMusic seems to have bumped me up to 50 for the final month of the good old days).

But as an existing subscriber (since April 2006), I get grandfathered next month onto 30 tracks a month for $US11.99, while new subscribers get only 24. But some long-term subscribers on bigger accounts are getting completely rogered -- their cost per track has doubled. That's a really bad way to treat long-term customers -- especially when you've explicitly promised them you won't do that.

On one hand, I realise that indie labels were justifiably keen to increase their yield from eMusic. Even given eMusic's excellent ability to create a buzz, by the time you take out promotional freebies, its returns were on the slim side. I'd swallow a higher price if it meant new indie releases were on eMusic from day one. (On the other, we subscribers' commitment to spend a certain amount every month on music does warrant a discount, especially when monthly download allowances don't roll over.)

So all this wouldn't be so bad if the service was working properly. But it isn't. It's not just the Sony catalogue we southern plebs can't get, it's more and more stuff.

And that's not entirely eMusic's fault. It can't sell catalogue where it doesn't have the right to do so. Further, I realise that some of the people with exclusive local distribution rights are indie folk who I personally know.

But I'm still paying for something I don't get, because Sony can't get it together to localise its eMusic sales. I don't doubt that this is possible -- of course it is. It only happens because it’s inconvenient to interrupt business as usual.

And here's why the majors have a case to answer on it: in the RIANZ/IMNZ submission to the select committee on the copyright amendment bill, eMusic was touted as precisely the kind of service that needed to be protected by draconian measures.

Well, because old business models won't change, eMusic now looks broken by the very people who deemed it in need of protection. I suppose I'll hang on till next month, collect my sorry-about-this bonus, and then cancel. That will be sad.

eMusic was great because it offered something like the discovery environment of the wider internet: fans finding new stuff via other fans. I've found and purchased some great stuff there. I'm not sure you'll be able to blame those fans for looking elsewhere now they've been shafted.


Staying with intellectual property, the Electoral Enrolment Centre has sent a takedown notice to should-a.com, a parody site that lets users write their own mock referendum questions. I realise that the Orange Election Man is worth protecting. I'm not sure that applies in the case of a site that only makes any sense if you know who he is anyway, and which states: "This site is intended for the purposes of amusement. Any and all trademarks remain the property of their owners."

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