New York City and all-you-can-eat

I wanted to write about eMusic six weeks ago, when they switched off their all-you-can-eat subscription package ($9.99 per month for unlimited downloads) but I waited for some press coverage – which didn’t show up. Now I’ve been listening to my last downloads – three amazing walking tours of The Bronx in New York City (yes, walking tours). I expected there to be a lot of fuss about eMusic‘s momentous change but it seems to have gone almost unremarked. It’s a pretty big deal for the music download business. eMusic, admittedly a tiddler next to the big players – but with hundreds of indie and specialist labels on its books and some amazing stuff in the catalogue – from Sam Cooke to The Fall and John Cage to Woody Guthrie – was sold to shadowy Dimensional Associates by Vivendi Universal in October (presumably for a fraction of the $24.6M they paid for it.

I suppose I should admit I was convinced that eMusic’s all-you-can-eat subscription model was the coming thing and that the music industry was about to slowly reconfigure around the kind of annuity income you get from subscribers instead of the disastrously unpredictable business you get from fickle High Street blow-ins like you an me. Wander down to your local HMV or Sam Goody’s right now if you want to see the brutality of old-fashioned seasonal retail in action.

But the classical, one-at-a-time model ($1 per track, $10 per album at iTunes, for instance) seems to have legs. I guess that the industry’s formidable ‘forces of conservatism’ are working overtime to preserve the model, the jobs and the infrastructure that go with it. After all, replacing an entire retail supply chain, from manufacture to distribution to marketing and accounting is hardly a trivial matter – and selling CDs online is not the solution – in the long-term that’s just the same old supply chain with knobs on (maybe 5% more efficient?). I’m still pretty sure that the music industry has to move to new charging and distribution models within the next few years or face the slow collapse of the retail model.

It’s unavoidable – music retail looks increasingly messed up. There has to be a big win available to the first player to make a different model work and that model is going to contain some kind of all-you-can-eat element. Trying not to be too apocalyptic about it, physical retail and one-at-a-time sales are unlikely to go away all together but the recorded music ecology will get richer (wider, not deeper) as it stretches to accommodate subscription services of different types.

The Bronx CDs are funky audio tours by local experts, produced by a company called Soundwalk (who also produce tours of other parts of the City), designed to be listened to as you walk the streets of the borough. I’ve been to New York many times but never set foot in The Bronx. Me and my iPod will take the plunge next time I’m there. While you’re at it, tune in to two programmes by Richard Niles about Manhattan’s pop legacy at BBCi – very good stuff (and if you can find the RealMedia streams on the Radio 2 web site I’ll owe you a Xmas drink).

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