One step forward, one big step back with the eMusic-Sony deal

eMusic’s new deal with Sony once again proves the old adage: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

I’ve made no bones about my love for indie music download service eMusic in the past. I think it’s great, and I’ve been a subscriber for years. So I rejoiced earlier this week when I learned that eMusic had struck a deal with Sony to publish its back-catalog of music two years old and older—until I discovered that eMusic had changed the terms of my subscription.

eMusic has, since its inception, focused on distributing independently published music. eMusic claims to be the second-largest digital music service after Apple’s iTunes Store, offering millions of tracks from thousands of indie music labels.

Up until now, though, eMusic hasn’t had much music that would appeal to listeners with mainstream tastes. That’s what made Monday’s announcement such great news: eMusic had reached an agreement with Sony Music to publish Sony’s back catalog. Beginning in the third calendar quarter of 2009, you’ll be able to download music from labels like Arista, Columbia, Epic, Jive, LaFace, and more. That means that Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, Jeff Buckley and Johnny Cash, just to name a few, will have extensive legacy catalogs available for download through eMusic.

eMusic works differently than the iTunes Store—rather than charging users an “a la carte” fee for downloading individual tracks, the company charges a flat subscription fee to download a specific number of songs each month. My “Connoisseur” package entitles me to grab up to 100 songs per month—I pay $25 for that. Per track, it’s a great deal—especially because I use eMusic to download songs I generally can’t find either on iTunes or on Amazon.com’s MP3 store. And the music downloaded from eMusic is in MP3 format, so there’s no digital-rights management (DRM) to worry about.

But in the wake of the Sony announcement, eMusic has announced that it is changing its subscription fees. My Connoisseur package is going up in price, from $25 to $31, and for that I’m getting 25 fewer songs per month than before. That still factors to 41 cents per song, which isn’t a particularly bad deal, and I can’t fault eMusic for pulling a similar move to Apple, when it did away with DRM completely (offering iTunes Plus songs exclusively, at a slightly higher price than they did before).

I’m just a bit disappointed to see it happen. Regardless of Sony’s presence, I’m going to be using the service to download music from the indie labels and artists that I’ve always sought out on eMusic. Which means that in my case, anyway, I’m going to be paying more and getting less without seeing any benefit.

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