In the past I’ve discussed several ways in which I think eMusic could improve itself for the benefit of both its customers and its suppliers (i.e., the music labels and the artists). Recently I read three interesting posts that touch on this subject. The first (to which this post is dedicated) is from Ian Rogers of Yahoo!, recapping his presentation at the Aspen Live conference in December:

Today users are creating tremendous value and for the most part we’re ignoring it. They’re writing blogs about your artists, putting bios on Wikipedia, documenting last night’s concert on Flickr and video sharing sites, showing what songs are most popular by their behavior on, building “box sets” on community sites, etc. How has the music industry leveraged this? What tools have you created to enable or encourage it?

Nothing and none, and what we’ve done is forced a disconnect between content and context. As I mentioned in my October presentation, iTunes is a (mostly) context-free content experience and the Web is a (mostly) content-free context experience. Whoever puts the two together wins.

This has always been a major complaint of mine about eMusic: When I discover an interesting new artist on eMusic I go through a period during which I want to seek out and experience everything I can about them. Can I do that through eMusic? Unfortunately not. eMusic is self-consciously “curated”: Except for subscriber reviews, descriptions in subscriber playlists, and message board posts, the eMusic site is a walled garden in which all content is provided by eMusic staff, contractors, or partners.

Unfortunately eMusic doesn’t have enough people to provide deep coverage of all the artists whose work it offers, or enough partners to fill the gaps. Even the eMusic subscriber base isn’t large enough to provide comprehensive coverage all the way down the long tail. Also, a lot of the information I’d like to have, including band bios, lyrics and liner notes, and information on upcoming concerts and releases, is (or at least should be) most easily obtainable directly from the artists and/or their labels, as opposed to getting it second-hand from others.

A concerted approach to provide comprehensive context would combine information from lots of sources: eMusic-exclusive reviews, articles, and interviews, subscriber reviews, relevant message board posts (e.g., linked to from album and artist pages), Wikipedia articles, music blog posts, reviews from multiple sources, news stories, artist and label web sites and other pages (e.g., on MySpace), unofficial fan sites and forums, and so on. One example of what’s possible is FoxyTunes Planet, a new site from the creators of the FoxyTunes Firefox extension.

For example, lately I’ve been listening to Clogs, a relatively obscure band even by eMusic standards. Clogs has a reasonably informative eMusic artist page licensed from the AllMusic Guide, along with AMG-provided reviews for two of its four releases, and eMusic subscriber reviews for one of them. On the other hand the FoxyTunes Planet page for Clogs has links to videos and concert footage, the band’s web site, photos, song lyrics, Clogs-related music blog posts, and other stuff. If you combined the eMusic information with the FoxyTunes Planet information, and also added a feedback mechanism to allow judicious editing (e.g., getting rid of all the videos about shoes and news stories about traffic jams), then I think you’d have a killer way to get deep context on any artists popular enough to generate Internet references.

Could eMusic be the service that truly puts content and context together, at least for the genres it specializes in? Beyond any benefits to subscribers, I think this would benefit artists and labels as well. In particular, if labels are unhappy with eMusic’s payouts, perhaps they’d be happier if eMusic provided them more opportunities to directly touch listeners, including providing label-generated content about artists, links to other artists on the same label, and so on. This could also be extended in theory to provide easy ways to generate follow-on sales of tickets, merchandise, and other products. (For example, since—unlike Amazon—eMusic doesn’t sell CDs or other physical media, why not let eMusic subscribers link through to label stores, with eMusic getting a cut of sales generated through such referrals?)

However in the end I’m skeptical of eMusic moving in this direction. Part of the problem is resources; I get the sense that eMusic is having a hard enough time running the business as it currently exists (witness the apparent issues with customer service), and that (having failed to find a buyer in the past) Dimensional Associates is perhaps unwilling to throw any more money at eMusic than might necessary to dress it up for sale. Another problem is perhaps a lack of imagination on the part of eMusic management. As I previously wrote, I don’t think eMusic is really a “Web 2.0”/“long tail” company; it’s more the Internet equivalent of an independent music store with well-stocked cutout bins (“a good example of a traditional specialty retailing strategy adapted to the realities of today’s music business”). Thus far eMusic has made some forays into the brave new world of blogs, RSS feeds, social networks, and mashups. However all of this hasn’t fundamentally changed the nature of eMusic as an ecommerce site with some extra features grafted on here or there.

It remains to be seen whether eMusic management has the desire or resources to revamp the whole eMusic experience. But as time moves on, eMusic’s original value proposition of low-priced DRM-free music will likely be duplicated by competitors, and eMusic will need to go the extra mile to keep its subscribers happy. I think that making context just as important as content would be one straightforward way to do just that.

UPDATE: I quote Ian Rogers of Yahoo! on the importance of context and offer FoxyTunes as an example of providing it, and just a few hours later Rogers announces that Yahoo! is buying FoxyTunes. I had absolutely nothing to do with this, I swear.

Amanda - 2008-02-06 03:22

A first, simple step in enhancing the experience of subscribers would be revamping the message boards and actually having some monitoring/moderation/official presence there. They are such a resource but only the hard-core seem to know about them,they a bit buggy and of course the constant trolling/complaints push the decent stuff down the page. I noticed mtracks has links to YouTube videos on its’ artists’ pages – not much but a start. I agree with everything you say, including the feeling its not going to happen. Which is a real pity.

MiDoJo - 2008-03-28 21:49

Frank I found your blog via 17dots, I know you posted this entry a while ago but I couldn’t agree more. Emusic has a lot of extras that are either unknown by subscribers (the abiliy to not only tap into the daily freetrack from any rss reader but to get a contstant feed of new releases I broke it up into genre i.e or dead ends (The podcast mentioned in the article you linked, which only has one entry from 2005 which pre-dates the inclusion of RSS as default into mainstream Browsers) Hey is that the same amanda from the Blog Post I found you in? (