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Free music!

September 13th, 2006 · Posted by Skuds in Music · 4 Comments · Music

There has been a bit of a stir caused by a new music site called eMusic which is supposed to compete with Apple's iTunes site.  Having seen sites like Napster, Wippit, Coke music and all the rest come along and fail to make a dent I am usually resistant to the hype, but I thought I would have a look at this one, and here is what I have made of it so far:


The main selling point of eMusic is that downloads are all in mp3 format which means, of course, no DRM nastiness to worry about.  It also means that the tracks can be played on machines other than the iPod. For owners of Creative, iRiver, Phillips, and other digital music players this is a big plus.

For the technically-minded, the files say they are 320kbit/sec mp3 files, although Windows Media Player seems to be playing at lower rates. Does this mean they are actually variable bit rate files?  They sounds OK to me though.


The other difference is the pricing. Tracks on iTunes cost 79p at the moment. With eMusic the cost can be a lot lower. It works on a subscription model where you pay a fixed amount and can download a certain number of tracks per month. This works out very cheap if you do download your full entitlement.

There are several different tariffs, but it works out at about 22p a track or thereabouts. The only catch is that unused monthly allowances cannot be carried over. If you get carried away and pay for 90 tracks a month and forget to download any it will work out to be expensive.

I am assuming that the company will rely on a certain amount of such wastage. In fact I would be surprised if their business plan didn't depend on it – when you download eMusic will have to pay a proportion to the record labels/artists but anything unused all goes to them.


Any music shop, whether it is online or bricks & mortar is only as good as its selection of merchandise, and the only way to see what the selection is like is to sign up for a free trial. Do I did that.

The publicity says that there are more than a million tracks. On its own that is pretty meaningless: they might all be by Tina Turner which would be a disappointment, so I was interested to see what I could find.

What I found was a selection that works well for me, but might not be to everyone's taste. As this is a new venture some of the larger record companies will be sceptical and will be waiting to see how it works out before deciding to join up and make their music available.

This means that there is not a lot of current chart music. I think there was a similar situation with iTunes at the beginning. Record companies are notoriously conservative and will need persuading that selling for less might generate enough extra sales to be more profitable.

So you will not find the new Elton John album on eMusic, nor anything by Stevie Wonder, U2, Kraftwerk, Gang of Four, Mano Negra or even Betty Boo. (Yes I did look. So what if I happen to like a couple of her songs?)

What I did find were a lot of world music artists and indie bands. In some cases there are bands' back catalogue available but not the newest material. Having said that, the Arctic Monkeys are there (good news for Gordon Brown) along with Franz Ferdinand (both albums), Paul Weller and Bloc Party.

One type of music which is well-represented is unusual cover versions. Both the Easy Star All-Stars albums are available (reggae re-workings of Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer), some Dread Zeppelin (reggae versions of Led Zeppelin with an Indian Elvis impersonator on vocals – it works!) and the first album by Nouvelle Vague, but not the new one. I also found an acoustic Toyah album.

Other artists I found included Rachid Taha, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Neil Finn, Gotan Project, Nacao Zumbi, Faudel, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Judas Priest, Dr Feelgood, Ojos de Brujo, Tom Tom Club and the Pixies. There is even a Spizzenergi greatest hits.


The site was very easy to sign up to.  You have to enter credit card details to sign up for the free trial. They say this is to avoid multiple sign-ups, but there must be an element of inertia selling as well.  Cancel before the two-week trial is over and the card is not charged. That looks easy to do, but I'll find out in a couple of weeks – unless I decide to continue.

You do have to download a bit of software to install locally, the eMusic Download Manager. That was quick and easy to install. When you buy a track the download manager takes the compacted file, converts it to mp3 and saves it to a folder on the desktop. Not where I would have chosen to put the files, but you can move them elsewhere easily enough and there may be options to change the file location.

On the website itself you can browse through lists, charts and recommendations sorted by genre, artist, age, ratings and all sorts of other criteria or you can just search for specific things. One you have an album you can see information about it and a track list. The tracks can all be previewed which plays a short sample via WMP.

I found that a useful feature. There were some albums which I have been tempted to buy and the previews showed me that actually I only fancied half the tracks.


So far I have downloaded the reggae versions of Karma Police, Paranoid Android and Money by the Easy Star All-Stars, Acoustic versions of Toyah's Ieya and I Want To Be Free and a couple of Rachid Taha tracks.

Later on I shall be picking some tracks from a Gogol Bordello live album and the new Buzzcocks album. After that I shall be making the difficult decisions of what to take off the iRiver to make room for these.

The Verdict

Whether it is worth staying with eMusic in the longer term depends partly on whether they will attract more record labels to them. In the shorter term there is more than enough to keep someone with a taste for older or more obscure music happy for a ferw months. In the very short term I think everyone could find at least 25 tracks they like to make it worth trying the 25-track free trial offer.

I always say that if something looks too good to be true than it probably is. In this case the only catch is the time limit and the chance of endng up paying for a month's subscription you don't want. Keep an eye on that and it really is free music. If you decide to continue it is cheap music and a good deal provided there is enough there which is to your tastes and you make full use of the allowance.

I think this site could succeed in competing with Apple, if enough major labels can accept the lack of DRM and allow more mainstream music to be available. Will that happen? Your guess is as good as mine. 

Just one bit of advice. You can either just go to their site to sign up or you can sign up via an invitation. It makes no difference except if you sign up via an invitation then the inviter gets some free tracks – so if you are thinking about it ask me to invite you: all I need is your e-mail address. 

If nothing else, it is an opportunity for you to listen to Spizzenergi, Ojos de Brujo, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Rachid Taha to see why I keep raving about them all the time.

Apologies to anyone I already sent an invite to. I know it may have looked like spam, but I only sent invites to people who I know to be interested in non-mainstream music, as I thought they might appreciate it.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Danivon

    Is it Betty Boo songs that you like, or Betty Boo?

  • Skuds

    Its a bit of both really. Also sentimental reasons – a dear friend who has since moved to NZ bought me the BB for xmas when it came out.

  • Gert

    Is it worth you sending me an invite?

    Try gertsbulk at btinternet dot com.

    But please don’t feel obliged if it doesn’t fit your business model!

  • Skuds

    Hehe. No business plan. I think I will only get anything if I continue after the free trial, which is by no means certain – depends how much stuff I find which I consider worth having.

    I have found enough to probably make it worth an extra month or two (Neu!, Chicks on Speed and the Rollins Band) but beyond that it would depend on extra artists/labels getting involved.