Emusic Rocks! - a long tail success

I was listening to Siamese Dream today by the Smashing Pumpkins while out running errands. It’s a perfect piece of early 1990s sugary pop music. A quick search on Google convinces me that others agree. I think ‘sugary’ is the perfect world to describe the music; it’s overdriven and overlayed guitar insanity.

I first heard it from a friend who brought the CD home from college during summer break and played it for me while we were hanging out. Back then most of my exposure to new music came through my friends. Dan hooked me up with Sonic Youth. Aaron blew my head back on so many occasions that it’s hard to remember all of them. (Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell) Brian filled me into New Order and Dead Can Dance.

Today almost all of my exposure to new music comes through a single web site: Emusic. I signed up with them back in 2001, before I had a broadband connection at home and back when a monthly fee got you unlimited downloads. The site has changed a lot since then, as this article at Ars Technica shows. From the beginning Emusic has released all its music without digital rights management. The files are just plain mp3s. They can be used on any player or burned to discs as many times as you want.

eMusic is a classic long-tail business which can add huge amounts of content—even the truly obscure stuff—without increasing the company’s warehousing costs or licensing fees (which are only paid out when songs are sold). And eMusic does have some crazy stuff on it; it might not sell well, but it can move a few copies and keep fans coming back to pay that monthly subscription fee. It seems to be working, too. Customers can leave at any time with no penalties, but their average stay at eMusic is about a year. That’s good news for Pakman, and it shows that his strategy of introducing people to new music is working.

Looking for new music in the long tail has changed my habits. Recommendations are still important, whether from the message boards on Emusic or the lists compiled and shared with other members. The biggest shift has been in my approach to music labels. Emusic is the only site I know of online that let’s you search easily by the company that released the music. ITunes certainly doesn’t allow it. Few of the music databases track this information.

Why not? It’s clear that the music label or company has long had an influence upon the way that people listen to music. Every genre has it’s preeminent music labels, ECM and Blue Note in jazz, 4AD for the shoegazers, SST or Dischord or Epitaph for the punks. In a music store you never see this organization because no one alphabetizes their CD collections by label. But online it’s easy to do, just add a link and a database query and a whole new dimension of music surfing is opened up.

So far some of the great finds I’ve discovered on Emusic are Small Stone, sludgy, guitar-heavy, distorted stoner rock; Omnitone, a great avant-garde jazz label; Matador, indie rock; Kranky, lots of math/chamber rock instrumentals, including the beautiful Labradford; Thrill Jockey, more indie and instrumental rock. So go check out Emusic. If you like anything beyond the prepackaged norm then you should find something worthwhile.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.