Welcome Back, EMusic

On the advice of many of you who e-mailed me about last month's rant on things that are wrong with digital music stores, I'm revisiting EMusic.

EMusic is a very different kind of digital music store. For one thing, it sells a completely different collection of tunes than most stores, focusing on well-known independent record labels instead of mainstream pop. For another--and this is the real clincher--it's a great value, and it doesn't use any digital rights management tactics. And the service just relaunched with a number of features that make it easier to discover new music.

First off, a quick disclaimer: I'm about to do something that may confuse some of you. I'm going to admit that I was wrong. This violates several sections of the columnist's code--a binding collection of self-serving statutes that's perhaps even more arcane than baseball's unwritten rules--but I've just got to do it. (Plus, I think Rule 1.24c, "When you're on deadline, anything can be a column," probably trumps those objections.)

When I last looked at EMusic, the site had just been purchased by some random "private equity" company and had decided to cancel its unlimited downloads policy--a major selling point of the service. Who knew what would happen next? I was crushed. It's not like I was leeching tons of files off EMusic servers, but I loved the fact that my US$15 per month subscription let me grab anything I wanted without having to worry about limits. The files were high-quality, too--variable bit rate MP3s averaging around 192 kilobits per second, with no DRM scheme restricting what I could do with them.

By comparison, the new EMusic limited downloads service didn't look too appetizing. So I ended my subscription, lamented the loss of a great service, and moved on. I have to admit, I sort of wrote EMusic off after that. The problem was, I'd gotten so caught up in the fact that the service lost its biggest selling point that I failed to notice that it was still much better than the competition. Until last week, that is.

What's Great and What's New

Almost a year later, it's striking how different EMusic remains from competing music stores. And with almost every difference the service manages to improve on the way competing stores like Musicmatch Downloads and Napster 2 work.

Let's take price as an example. Most online music stores charge about US$1 per track or US$10 per album. EMusic's subscription plans now have caps, but each of the plans ends up costing less than what the competition would charge. The US$10-per-month low-end subscription lets you download 40 songs per month, which works out to about 25 cents per track. The high-end US$20 per month subscription covers 90 downloads, for about 22 cents per track. You can buy "booster packs" if you run out of downloads in a month, but unused downloads do not carry over to the next month.

And it's not like you're getting inferior files, either. EMusic downloads still arrive as variable bit rate MP3s (no other file format is available). As an example, the tracks on the Decemberists album I downloaded have bit rates between 131 kbps and 221 kbps. Most are around 180, though, which is pretty good for MP3s.

Oh, and did I mention the files remain DRM free? So there's no need to worry about the future of your music collection. Everything plays MP3s, right? And even if MP3s eventually go the way of LPs, the DRM-free files let you easily convert your music to any format you like. This is the way it should be.

EMusic is basically a Web site. You search using your browser and click to download tracks. That triggers a small download manager app (available for Windows, Mac, and Linux PCs), which queues the files you've selected and pulls them down from the server. Preference settings in the download manager make it easy to fit your new files in with the rest of your music collection by changing the folder and file naming structure that tracks go into.

The EMusic home page now features columns from an award-winning team of music critics. You can also now browse the download histories of EMusic members with similar taste. Both of these features make it much easier to discover new artists.

A Word on Selection

You might need the help, too, because you won't find lots of mainstream, top 40 artists on EMusic. The store's collection currently numbers more than 400,000 tracks; competitors like ITunes and Windows Music Store are at about a million. EMusic's selection is drawn from well-known independent record labels like Beggars Banquet, Epitaph, and Matador.

To an indie music fan like myself, those are impressive names. If your tastes run more to Macy Gray and Maroon 5 than Pavement and The Pixies, you'll probably have to look elsewhere. But if EMusic's selection is up your alley, you can find some great stuff there. Through partnerships with several famous concert venues like the Fox Theater in Boulder, Colorado and The Metro in Chicago, EMusic continues to add to a library of live concerts that's unmatched. You'll find those under the EMusic Live tab. Shows from The Wrens, Robbie Fulks, and Taj Mahal had me drooling as I signed up for the service again.

EMusic isn't for everyone, but I'm sure glad I gave it another look. Browse its collection yourself to find out if it's right for you.

Quick Hits

MP3AlbumMaker: If I was dreaming up the perfect MP3 player, one of the first features I'd add is a way to make sure a sequence of two songs plays one after the other, even on random shuffle. Do you get so used to the order of tracks on an album that your favorite single just doesn't sound right without the succeeding track played after it? That happens to me all the time, and there's been no good way to fix the problem.

That's what I thought, until a coworker asked me what a program called MakeitOne MP3 Album Maker was good for. As it turns out, this simple freebie is the best solution I've found. It lets you join any sequence of MP3 files into a single long file. I've used it to build a folder collecting my favorite song sequences so I can put them in a favorite tracks playlist I set on shuffle play. Problem solved.

In Heavy Rotation

The Black Keys: Rubber Factory, the new album from The Black Keys proves once again that you don't need anything more than a drum kit and a beefy, distorted-all-to-hell guitar sound to make great music. People are calling the sound "garage blues," which is as good a classification as any.

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Eric Dahl

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