Tzadik (sort of) on eMusic

3 minute read

I happened to read a blog post by a John Zorn fan ruminating about whether to buy albums from Zorn’s Tzadik label from eMusic or elsewhere. So he asked Tzadik for guidance:

I emailed Tzadik to ask if they had a preferred way that fans buy their music. I was told their preference was definitely the purchase through our own web site. In regards to eMusic, I was told that they offer downloads as an alternative.

What Tzadik didn’t tell him is that the label deliberately makes eMusic a less palatable alternative, by not offering for download tracks that are over 15 minutes in length. (See the eMusic message board threads Tzadik tracks gone in a flash = no subscribing and Long Tzadik tracks gone.) Speculation is that Tzadik didn’t believe they were compensated adequately for long tracks sold through eMusic, and thus decided to withdraw them from the service. Tzadik does offer longer tracks through the iTunes Music Store, although on iTMS they are available only when buying the complete album. If I recall correctly Tzadik also used to offer longer tracks through Audio Lunchbox, which has a points system that enables variable pricing of tracks; however Tzadik releases now seem to have disappeared entirely from ALB.

Tzadik has a perfect right to run its business as it pleases, but I can’t help thinking that they’re missing the point of eMusic and digital downloads in general. The point of eMusic is to support music discovery through low-priced access to a wide selection of independent music, to encourage people to listen more music and (as a result) buy more music. Prior to subscribing to eMusic I never bought a Tzadik-released CD, and likely would have gone to my grave without so doing. However as a result of compiling my PostClassic Picks list (based on the playlist from Kyle Gann’s Internet radio station PostClassic Radio) I ended up buying two albums by Peter Garland. It wasn’t until I clicked the Download ALL button for the second album that I noticed that it was missing two tracks. Needless to say this did not put me in a good mood, and it rather soured me on buying further Tzadik releases.

Now my purchases didn’t represent much revenue to Tzadik, but it was incremental revenue they wouldn’t have had otherwise (at basically zero marginal cost to them), and it might have led to additional incremental revenue as I further explored the Tzadik catalog on eMusic. Instead they basically pissed off a potential buyer in an attempt to protect their CD sales. If they were that concerned about protecting the business, why’d they do a deal with eMusic in the first place?

Tzadik’s attitude contrasts with that of BIS Records, whose albums on eMusic were at one point missing tracks over 8 minutes in length–not by design but rather through the actions of their distributor IODA. The head of the label, Robert von Bahr, responded to complaints by saying I’d rather they pull the whole lot from eMusic than serving up truncated albums/work like this and noted that … you can go buy the CD/SACD, download from eMu or vomit, whatever you feel like. Do spread the word, that’s why we went to the trouble of offering this service. In other words, there are different types of customers with differing desires and differing ideas about what price they’d like to pay, and BIS is trying to offer all of them a product that serves their particular needs.

To reward BIS for this attitude, I decided just now to download one of their releases, Mats Bergstrom’s SubString Bridge, which looked interesting to me (especially given that I’m a fan of Steve Reich’s music). (Either eMusic or IODA got the title of the album wrong, as often happens with classical releases on eMusic, but that’s a post for another day.) SubString Bridge was an eMusic Editor’s Pick, however the one review I could find of the album characterizes it as uneven. But hey, at 25 cents a track why not download the whole thing and see if I agree? That sort of impulse buying of potentially interesting music is what eMusic is all about, and I wish Tzadik would wake up and realize it.