With Amazon MP3 and iTunes out of the way- the two immediate giants in the music store world- it’s time to turn to some of the smaller services. First off is eMusic.
Requirements and software
eMusic is another service that only works in certain countries. I was unable to find anywhere on the site which listed where it actually works, so I don’t know if it works anywhere outside the US. The good news is it does work with a proxy and doesn’t check your IP when using the desktop software (like Amazon Unboxed video does, which is the reason that service won’t get reviewed). To download you need the eMusic Downloader which is a software application very similar to the one Amazon MP3 has, which downloads your music/audiobooks and lets you auto-import to iTunes or Windows Media Player. Besides the fact the software crashed the first time I tried to download anything, it’s a decent application- however I still think that services that offer DRM free music like this should also allow for direct downloads to ensure maximum compatibility not only with mobile devices but also with shared computers at libraries etc. eMusic is browser based, no reason why the download shouldn’t be.
Concept and pricing
eMusic isn’t like Amazon MP3 or iTunes; it’s subscription based, where you pay a price for X amount of downloads per month. That price per track is lower, but you have less flexibility for when you want to buy something, and if you don’t use your credits that’s money lost. Pricing is as follows:
Being browser based, that means that all of the browsing is done online. As with Amazon MP3 this results in somewhat of a more basic look and feel to it than with iTunes and it’s more about information that aesthetics. You have two basic starting points for browsing; the audiobook main page and the music main page. The music main page simple has a list of various things you can browse by; genres, newly added, special recommendations, live music, featured music, release date, member rating and alphabetical by album/artist etc. A lot less flashy than either Amazon or iTunes and it looks a bit “spreadsheet”, even though it does give you your main options straight up. While there is a way to browse by the most popular music this isn’t really featured on the main page, of reason I will get to later.
Browsing genres will give you a better main page with some actual music on it rather than just shortcuts, complete with recommendations of albums and artists. You can also browse further by sub-genre or “style” as they call it, such as “post-rock” or “indie rock”. If you instead browse by year and not genre, you get only a basic list of albums as your main page and the same goes for browsing by artist/album etc. It really does look a bit spreadsheet and half-hearted in many places, almost giving you the feel of walking through a ghost town. Part of that is also the fact you see very few popular artists, which again I’ll talk more about later.
eMusic does show you a tree structured navigation bar on top to see where in the system you are, but it’s a bit backwards at times in my opinion. For instance, if you browse to “electronic ambient” music via the editor’s choice menu, you’re at home>browse>editor’s picks>electronic>electronic ambient. That’s fine, but if you then want to jump into all electronic ambient music you have to browse from scratch, while if the build up was home>browse>electronic>electronic ambient>editor’s picks you would have the most specific filters at the end and wouldn’t be locked to a somewhat “random” filter at anything but the last level. I’m nitpicking of course, but I personally often jump around using the navigation bar and having filters like editor’s picks hang around wherever I go can make it hard to know what you’re actually looking at.
Artist pages give you the basic info for the band as well as artist picture if available. There are also boxes with related artists, YouTube videos, Flickr photos and Wikipedia entries. In other words, half the artist pages are outsourced, but it’s nice to have the info there anyways. Each artist page also has a list of music by that artist, divided into albums, singles, live music, compilations etc. eMusic never really seem to bother with listing separate tracks anywhere but the album pages, which can be a bit annoying if you want to browse all of the artist’s music by track not album.
Album pages have the standard album art, track list with previews, comments and ratings. Previews don’t seem to be flash based, but they work just fine for me- not sure you don’t need some extra plugin of sorts for it to work, though. The YouTube and Flickr photos have also made it to the album pages, as well as a nice feature that displays member playlists to give a new way of finding related music.
Downloading single tracks or albums is done on a one-click basis, which can be a problem if you mistake the smaller preview button for the larger download button. There’s no confirmation, no pop-ups, it simply starts downloading using the desktop software.
There isn’t much difference between browsing music and browsing audiobooks. The audiobook section has a nicer main page, but from there it’s pretty much the same. No YouTube videos, Wikipedia entries or Flickr photos (naturally), but also no previews- which is a pity seeing how bad some narrators are. Still one-click downloads, which can be a real problem with audiobooks since they cost 20 times as much as music. One wrong cli
ck and you’re out $10.
As mentioned earlier eMusic doesn’t seem to care much for single tracks and so don’t list them. In my previous reviews of Amazon MP3 and iTunes Music Store I’ve used a list of 20 artists and the number of songs available for each to give somewhat of a view of the selection in the store. Double entries, “X feat. Y” listings and so on mess up the results so it’s by no means an accurate representation, but it does give a general feel of the selection of each store. With no single tracks for eMusic I had to use number of albums instead, but you can extrapolate probable number of song by multiplying with 10-15 tracks per album. It’s flawed, I know, but there’s no good way of testing the selection. I do have to say that eMusic have a very poor selection, you’ll rarely see any popular artists anywhere which is why a “top 10” list is useless and so under prioritized- it’s top 10 of unpopular tracks, more or less. It lacks some of the most popular artists on the list and gives you a message complaining about licensing issues with the record label. Excuses might make your customers understand, but it won’t make them use your services. The list still shows the overall standing of the music stores so far: iTunes has the most, Amazon second, eMusic definitely worst by a good margin. As I review more software, the list will get updated.
I haven’t developed a way to test audiobook selection and won’t do so either. However, as a very heavy user of audiobooks (and hence it was the first thing I tried on eMusic) I can assure you that the selection is just as bad as for music. Part of it is the fact that the bigger companies like Audible produce a lot of the books themselves, and that leaves eMusic with whatever scrap they can buy the rights to. I’m sure the DRM free MP3 part doesn’t help with getting the rights to sell audiobooks.
I’ve already mentioned that eMusic uses DRM free MP3 as the format of choice, which is a good thing of course since it’s directly compatible with everything. To be more specific, most tracks are V0 VBR MP3, the same as Amazon. Older tracks might be V2 or even V5 VBR, but eMusic says these are marked clearly. There shouldn’t be any major issues with quality, in other words. I’m not sure if eMusic has tracks in joint stereo or not, which some people pointed out Amazon does.
Audiobooks are also MP3, which means they’ll play on any player as well. The books are split into separate tracks and numbered accordingly so there shouldn’t be an issue with sorting the files properly. Bit rate for the audiobook I tried was 64kbps which should be sufficient for speech and saves some space, but a full audio book is still a sizable download.
As for tags, eMusic has everything tagged fine- but some tracks don’t have album art at all (on the site or the downloaded files). I’m not sure how they can get their hands on music without also having access to the album picture, but it’s something people should be aware of. On more common tracks, album art was already tagged and the size of the album art seemed to be 600×600 for most, although I haven’t checked that many files.
eMusic has some nice prices if you really use all of your credits, but the biggest flaw of the service- the one that is for all intents and purposes fatal- is the selection. You might find music you want on there and be able to get some of the music you want cheaper than on other services- especially if you’re into older stuff, indie music etc, but you can’t expect to use eMusic as your only source for content, be it audiobooks or music- the selection is simply too poor from a mainstream point of view. The subscription model is also a bit annoying in that it tries to spam you with better (read: more expensive) plans both when you sign up, when you browse the store, when you try to leave and in your cancellation confirmation email. They also didn’t ask why I left, but considering how they seem to try to hide how poor the selection is I have a feeling they know. All in all eMusic has great prices but that doesn’t help when the selection is this bad.