I recently read Seth Godin’s book Small is the New Big—basically a collection of his blog posts published on dead trees. (I checked it out from the library, saving both my pocketbook and the environment.) One of the posts I found interesting highlighted the concept of the “free prize,” i.e., that little something extra you get from certain products and services:

The Free Prize is the experience of service at the Ritz Carlton, when what you paid for was a good night’s sleep.

The Free Prize is the change counting machine at Commerce Bank, when what you needed was a checking account.

The Free Prize is the line at Al Yaganeh’s soup stand, when what you came for was the soup. . . .

(Godin also wrote a book on this topic, which I haven’t yet read.)

The post got me thinking: What is eMusic’s Free Prize? I’m wondering whether the answer is “community”—the feeling that you’re not just a lonely music lover out there in the void, but rather you’re part of a group of people who share some of the same tastes, help each other out, evangelize the faith and defend it against outsiders, maintain key bits of history and shared information, have catchphrases and private conversations, and (touchy-feely though it might sound) find meaning in their mutual relationships and their shared love of music.

What I find interesting about community in the context of eMusic is that it appears to have been unplanned on the part of eMusic management, who at some point decided to implement a message board feature and then for the most part left the kids alone to play by themselves. In general I think this is all to the good. eMusic has some “community features” (“neighbors,” user-contributed reviews and ratings, user-published lists, and so on), and could do much better in terms of implementing ways for eMusic subscribers to connect with one another and add value to the service. However as Tara Hunt has noted we shouldn’t confuse the communities people build together with the “communities” that corporations want to build for them: “Community . . . isn’t meant to be a marketing tool.

In essence the “eMusic community” exists because of but apart from eMusic proper; eMusic was simply the catalyst, the sand but not the oyster. In that sense the most interesting recent news about the eMusic community isn’t a web site enhancement or a marketing initiative, but rather the fact that eMusic employees are now (unofficially) speaking for themselves through their 17 dots group blog. For the most part they’re not really talking about eMusic itself—its plans, policies, products, and so on—probably because eMusic management is wary about having them do so. (And perhaps rightly so: if I want answers to questions about eMusic as a business I’d rather hear from someone like David Pakman who can actually speak authoritatively on those issues.) Instead they’re doing something more important, promoting great music and the artists who create it—the “higher purpose” that I think makes the “eMusic community” a true community.

A while back I speculated about how eMusic could survive Amazon entering its market, and somewhat peremptorily dismissed the importance of a thriving eMusic user community as a competitive advantage. On second thought I think I was right, at least in terms of eMusic’s strategy. eMusic should concentrate first and foremost on making discovery and downloading of new music as easy and delightful as it can. “Community” would then remain an unexpected but welcome bonus.

Babs (brackettbeth@sbcglobal.net) - 2008-01-24 17:54

Did I miss something here???? I signed on to eMusic as a consumer under a so called trial for 14 days only to find that they have no popular music to offer. What, no Journey??, no Sheryl Crow?? Their ideas of 70’s is artists I have never heard of. Cancelled my membership which was a monthly at 9.99 offer only to be sent to the account page indicating that I will not cancel for one year!! Forget the Customer Service, for God’s sake. You will get a canned reply that tells you you agreed to sell your life away and cannot hire a lawyer! e-Music is just e-Poor.

hecker - 2008-01-24 18:03

Just to clarify: I don’t work for eMusic, I have no affiliation with eMusic, I am simply an ordinary eMusic subscriber. I don’t mind if people leave comments critical of eMusic and its customer service; however I am not in a position to help people with their complaints.