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June 17, 2009 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

It’s been swell, but the swelling’s gone down

For two and a half years I have been using eMusic to get my legal music fix. I thought it was nearly a perfect service. So much for that. Here is what my eMusic account information has to tell me now:

We’re sorry that we’ve had to retire your current plan, but we’re confident that you’ll find even more music to love among the many new additions to the music catalog. And of course, you can always choose a different plan by visiting the Plan Options page within Your Account.

EMusic is going the way of many good things on the internet (becoming more corporate, raising prices significantly) and I am putting my account “on hold” for 3 months to see if I miss it. I seriously doubt that I will. It was a great deal (I was paying $20/month to get 75 song downloads) but this was a bad time for the coolest online music service to hike their prices so much (mostly in order to add Sony content). It’s not just a 58% price increase per track, and it’s not just the shockingly poor job the company did of advertising and explaining the change. It’s that the world of free music — as in open source, as in freely given away — is expanding rapidly and insanely.

Sad as I am to give up on eMusic when I still have 90-something albums on my “save for later” list, I am already drowning in new content from places like the Free Music Archive . There are thousands of musicians giving away their content for free and a lot of it is more adventurous and more interesting than anything you can pay for. For example, yesterday I was digging on the dreamy sounds of Ducktails . You can’t get much better than this.

A lot of the reason I was part of eMusic in the first place was as sort of a charity for the artists and indie labels that help to bring great music to me. I have always been willing to give some money for that, even though I am web-savvy and can easily acquire music for free. But really, services like eMusic are all going to disappear as the market for music recordings continues to vanish. I still support artists in other ways… like going to shows, and buying CDs directly from bands, and buying beer at the clubs in order to help keep them open. It’s not much, but it is about all I can do.

Anyway, it seems to me like the world of music recording and consumption has already split into two directions. On the one path, racing towards oblivion, is the corporate model which has been hemorrhaging revenue for the past decade. This is the model that brought us, you know, the Beatles and the like. Most of the best musicians of the 20th century were affiliated with major record labels, and their successful model led small-time artists to emulate them. So even as far back as the ’50s there were local record companies putting out 45s of exciting doo wop and early R&B; as technology progressed, and recording became cheaper and easier, indie labels proliferated and turned into something of a farm league for the majors. The cross-pollination between big-time companies and little handshake labels helped create a whole universe of pop music of surprising depth and diversity. Surely there has never been such a blossoming of original music in human history, and if it wasn’t all of stellar quality, the sheer quantity of new music ensured a lot of successes.

But this awesome era, where the interests of art, fun, and making money could all overlap to a greater or lesser extent, is over. This piece about Sonic Youth (no longer affiliated with a major label) suggests that it is the mainstream’s loss, that we are losing something when the underground no longer throws curveballs at middle America. I agree. If you want to see the future of mainstream pop music, imagine Coldplay stamping on an echo pedal, forever.

The underground will be ok, though. Without money as even a realistic possibility, people will continue to make great music for the sake of art or for fun. With improving technology and software, soon half the world’s population will have the capacity to make high-quality recordings. It should be a crazy awesome future, if you aren’t trying to become a platinum-selling artist. So we won’t have too many more Radioheads, but in its place there will be a hundred bands like Ducktails. Seems like a pretty fair trade, even better than 75 songs for $20.