Other Music in New York

New York’s Other Music is a landmark, brick-and-mortar store filled with independent and even experimental music. Now it’s getting a new lease on life online — and that’s part of a trend could change the scene for music consumers. Photo by fluzo aka Manual Bartual.

Listen to the mainstream press, and the story goes something like this: most online downloads have DRM. Then, major label EMI announced it would drop DRM from iTunes songs (for an additional per-song cost, at a higher bitrate). EMI, says this mainstream narrative, is the exception to the rule.

That’s missing an entirely separate narrative that’s unfolding, which is that many, many smaller labels are embracing new, smaller music stores.

They’re the polar opposite of Apple’s iTunes Music Store:

  1. They lack DRM. As of today, 100% of the iTunes Music Store is still DRM-protected, in a format only Apple-branded products can play. 100% of many other stores is DRM-free. Their overall catalog is generally smaller, but depth in their areas of specialization can actually be greater, because —
  2. They’re niche-y. They embrace various niches rather than pushing top-of-the-charts tastes. Think long tail rather than top 20 Casey Casum. (Nothing against Casey; he’s part Lebanese-American so we’re probably distant cousins.)
  3. They support cross-platform formats. iTunes-purchased tracks work on iPods, Macs, and Windows, but not any other players or Linux. Windows Media files with copy protection don’t work on Macs, Linux, iPods, or some cheaper/foreign players (at least, not without some work in these categories). By supporting formats like MP3 and OGG, these alternative stores support both mainstream hardware and software (iPod, Zune, Windows Media Player, iTunes, etc.) and anything else you’ve got. And since there’s no DRM, you can mix and match at will. (Yes, WMA and AAC can technically be added to players, and AAC is even part of MPEG-4 — but the availability of MP3 for purchase does make for a better common-denominator format.)
  4. They’re high-bitrate. AAC as used by Apple and (some argue) even Microsoft’s WMA perform better at lower bitrates than the older MP3 format. But we’re still talking lossy compressions at relatively low data rates. Antiquated as the format may be, 320 kbps MP3s sound closer to CDs. If you can still hear the difference, some stores even let you opt for lossless tracks.
  5. They’re more like your neighborhood store. iTunes is Wal-Mart to the neighborhood feel of stores like Bleep and Other Music, built around the store or around labels with close-knit audiences. Some of these stores (Other Music, Dance Tracks Digital) even have brick-and-mortar counterparts, just as independent and used booksellers have recently benefited from the ability to extend their business to Web customers.

The most recent bombshell was Other Music’s new digital store, as mentioned on Wired’s Listening Post blog in January. Other launched its new store in April. Why does this matter? Because Other is an international landmark in the indie music scene, a hub for indie lovers and now-famous musicians in New York’s East Village. Unlike iTunes, it’s not a manufactured thing: it’s a real, live store, and some of its owners’ unique tastes and relationships with music are reflected in its online counterpart. As a brand, that means it already has an association with music experts. And tens of thousands of tracks are pouring into this store from music labels, many of whom are underrepresented or missing entirely from stores like iTunes. Now, they’re available online, at high bitrates, without DRM, and a ravenous group of music lovers is likely to take notice.

Other’s not alone, either.

The electronica scene has already been hip to DRM-free online downloads, with stores like Bleep, Dance Tracks Digital, 3BeatDigital, and Beatport. These stores can also cash in as DJs look to fill their virtual record crate. The US-based Dance Tracks Digital and the UK’s 3BeatDigital both offer tracks pre-warped for Ableton Live, and Beatport recently announced, in continuation of its ongoing relationship with Native Instruments, its music store would be fully integrated into NI’s new Traktor Scratch. But the indie music scene, naturally a little less enthusiastic about technology than people who make music almost exclusively on computer screens, is also starting to come around.

Additional stores in other genres are starting to catch hold, too. AllAboutJazz.com, the popular jazz portal, has launched its own community and online store. The model is similar: 320-kbps MP3s, focused on a market that has typically been under-served (increasingly of late), built into a community. As bandwidth prices come down, there may be more.

There are two ways to read this. One is to see this as a larger trend away from DRM, as many in the blogosphere does. Sonific’s Gerd Leonard, who co-authored the recent book The Future of Music, sees eMusic.com as the future and indie labels as swimming against the tide. The problem is, Gerd assumes that consumers want to pay less for music and that being DRM-free is enough. eMusic is a classic example of how this overly simplistic model can go horribly wrong. Music for a label is a business, and eMusic simply prices everything so low that their stock turns into a random bargain-bin of tracks, priced to grow their business but not to provide any incentive for labels to participate — and without any sense of how consumers will perceive value in the result. eMusic’s not a total failure; some readers here really like it. But labels have every right to try to set prices and margins at a point that makes money for them. To claim otherwise would be to ignore basic business principles, not the least of which being cheaper is not always better. (The classic example: look at how much Starbucks charges for a latte. As a result, their margins are higher, and their perceived value is greater, even if the product itself is just foam. You can’t write books about this stuff, of course, because it’s business 101. It ain’t sexy — but it might just be the reality.)

Non aux DRM

A French protest of DRM restrictions. For all the ideological and philosophical battling over DRM and music distribution, practical concerns — easy playback, and access to music you love — may ultimately tilt the scales toward new stores. Photo by Bastien, who started the Public-Access site and, as it happens, a Pure Data group on Flickr.

I see a different trend. Yes, DRM is out, if for no other reason than many labels are starting to realize it’s not actually making them money and consumers are freer with their wallets if it’s not there. Yes, competition for the bigger online stores has a bright future, if only because the big stores are reaching a certain saturation point. The key is, by playing to the niche, you play to a potentially more lucrative customer: the musical maven who cares about what they’re buying, and buy more. How many casual music purchasers do you know who use the iTunes Music Store just because it was there? Now, think about their buying patterns. I bet a lot of them just picked up some singles here and there, maybe an album or two, and ripped the rest of the 30-50 CDs they already own. (The argument about most iPod space being filled with pirated music ignored the fact that a lot of musical newbies have no idea what something like 20 GB actually means, and leave a lot of it empty, using ripped CDs for the rest because it’s what they know.)

What about the music mavens you know? They’re the ones with hundreds or thousands of CDs in their collection, who still insist upon stopping by that indie record store when they’re traveling and clearing out their inventory, who then wind up running up a few hundred dollars in bills on an online indie electronica label late one Friday night. Right?

As labels and smaller stores struggle to survive (Other Music recently watched titan Tower Music close only blocks away), these online stores could become a refuge to a struggling business. And that, in turn, could lead the mavens to start to influence their friends. DRM in general, of course, won’t die until other majors (not just EMI) drop it, because the mainstream market still looks for music they recognize from the radio, even if they’re more balkanized than before by factors like ethnicity and taste.

Here’s the bottom line: in general, most music listeners care far more about actual music than they do about the ideological battles that obsess pundits on the Internet. But what these online stores do offer is a tangible, practical experience that’s better than what big stores offer, even with music player integration on tools like iTunes. They offer music that’s more likely to cater to specific tastes, organized in a way that makes it easier to find and discover, in formats that sound better, work with more hardware and software, and create less hassle.

It’s going to be a long slog tweaking these online sites, getting music from labels, and getting the word out. But in the long haul, if some of these smaller stores can be successful at doing this, I believe musicians and listeners alike can only benefit.

In the meantime, I may take advantage of the fact that Other’s physical store isn’t far from my neighborhood.


Where do you get your DRM-free music?

  • The diversification of online sales was to be expected, but so far I'm still opting to stay with eMusic. I've checked out a lot of these smaller shops, like Other and Fina Music, and while I support the effort, the cost per release seems ridiculously high to me. For example, Fina has Trans Am's Futureworld for $10 US, only $3 cheaper than the CD. In comparison, I can download non-DRM mp3s of the same album for roughly a total cost of $2 at eMusic (I pay something like $18 for 90 tracks a month, which is 20 cents a track, 10 tracks on this album).

    My instinct is usually to support small retailers over big box shops, but in this case one-fifth the cost for the same product is too big a disparity to ignore. I suppose some labels might opt to remove content from eMusic, but eMusic's userbase is pretty high, and still probably pays out better in the end. My acquaintances who have releases on several of the major on-line retailers really only see any appreciable returns from eMusic, probably because it is designed to benefit smaller/unknown acts (due to the per-month download quota system and absence of majors).

  • Thanks, Steve. Maybe setting a new price point for music purchases makes sense. But if eMusic keeps squeezing those minor labels on cost and they have an alternative, I still wonder what's to keep the labels on eMusic. Absence of majors is one thing; absence of music — if it comes to that — would be another altogether. The fact that eMusic is shrinking, not growing, doesn't seem to me to be a healthy sign. Whatever they do, those labels have to be making money — even if at a cheaper per-track cost, via higher volumes — to stay. So I'd like to hear more of the economics there.

  • dan

    I would say the reluctance of the major music publishers to embrace web-based music distribution models may hurt them a lot in the long run. Considering the ease with which new musicians can produce high-quality recordings nowadays, the market is becoming flooded with huge amounts of (free and DRM-free) new music – new models for monetising such music need to be embraced.

  • Michael

    I'll take your word for it that eMusic is shrinking, but I don't see it. That is, it's going to be a long time before I hit the wall of owning everything they have. So what difference does it make to me, a consumer, if they have 100,000 downloads or 100 billion?

    But I think you miss the point of their model, anyway. No one may admit it, but eMusic's model is as a teaser.

    Most of what I've bought from them is the first two or three recordings of musicians whose later music isn't there (and those releases are probably beyond their prime in the major markets, so eMusic is permitting the label to mop up around the edges of distribution). At that point, having what eMusic offers, if I'm interested (and I have been, many times) I go and buy the rest somewhere else (usually used on Amazon, in point of fact, if the music is major-market RIAA choked stuff, but that's a different story).

  • velocipede

    What is the story about eMusic, Peter? I've noticed that a few labels have left, but far more have joined in the 4 years that I have subscribed. I would like to know more about how they pay labels/artists.

    Personally, I think eMusic's pricing is about right for a couple of reasons. Digital downloads eliminate most of the cost of production and distribution of hard copies, not to mention expenses incurred on the retail end (rent and labor). The other perhaps more significant reason, though, is that there is so much free, legal and good music available online now, the motivation to buy songs, let alone albums is greatly reduced. For example, I downloaded the multi-gigabyte sampler from SXSW last year and I get free tracks from various radio stations every day. I also have access to a huge selection of online streaming (keeping my fingers crossed that new legislation will keep it so) and podcasts that lets me pick a genre or dj to match my mood. I still order a CD or two every month and am especially interested in DVD-Audio discs with surround. I probably would not actively buy more than that, however, if it were not for eMusic because I've already paid them for 40 tracks each month.

    I should also add that I probably preview over a hundred entire albums each month on eMusic. For example, I check out the albums reviewed in Keyboard there. Sure, I could do that at Amazon or go to artist sites, but eMusic is tailored for heavy-duty audio browsing.

    I do think artists should be paid and be able to make money, but I think the future is on the lines of the $0.25 track with 4 people buying it, rather than the $1 track with 1 person buying it. I'm sure a lot more people are willing to take risks on new artists when the costs are lower.

  • velocipede

    This news about eMusic just popped into my RSS feed.

  • VanceG

    Personally, I find eMusics service good only for some very basic "searching" for files. The encoding quality they use(d) is very, very poor. I found the vast majority of the recordings I downloaded from them to be entirely unlistenable. I stopped using their service for this reason about 16 months ago. By the end of my time with eMusic, I was using is only as a way to find out about new artists and then went and purchased CDs or files elsewhere. Knowing that I worked this way, I didn't feel too very bad about eMusics business model and any "squeezing" that they were doing to the labels pricing.

    That said, I know my approach is atypical and perhaps eMusic model is pushing prices too low to be really reasonable.

  • From that Reuters/Yahoo article, who are the three labels leaving? I see Victory Records, but who else?

    Emusic currently has 40393 labels listed in their database and growing. My guess is that labels that can confidently sell 1000 releases in a year on iTunes aren't going to be interested in eMusic in the long term unless the pay schedule is improved, but for a lot of indies, they are lucky to sell 25 releases on iTunes. There's over 300,000 subscribers on eMusic, the minimum package is 30 downloads a month. That's a lot of downloads to capitalize on.

    The label/collective I belong to (Intelligent Machinery Productions, who sold downloads before we went all hippy) have downloads for sale in around ten of the major on-line retailers, and only ever saw an appreciable (if minor, hence going all hippy and giving stuff away for free instead) return from eMusic.

    These indie stores are a great idea if they start thinking of downloads as something other than in terms of CD sales. At $5 an album, I'd be much more inclined to consider getting stuff through Other. As it stands though, I expect we'll see a lot of these on-line stores going under in the next year, and people blaming it on a poor market instead of their weak business practices.

  • Looks like Tzadik is gone from eMusic. I'm sure losing that one had to hurt.


  • kj

    ya know, i've seen this "i'm all for artists getting paid" baloney on many a message board. usually as a preface to a sentance explaining why the person really DOESN'T care one iota whether the artist gets paid! gee, you think we should only get a quarter a song! oh, how generous of you, sir! thank you! thank you!

    my records are on emusic and i get paid very little. emusic came along to indie labels when this whole mp3 thing was first happening and, i think, got a lot of indie lables who didn't know any better at that time to sign up for their RIDICULOUS biz model. let's put it this way, emusic and the consumer make out like bandits. who loses? why the PEOPLE WHO ACTUALLY CREATE THE CONTENT THAT PEOPLE WANT!

    this whole system is so screwed it's not even funny. but the music biz screwed people on cd's prices (well, the majors did; indie labels, for the most part, kept the prices decent.)for a years (esp. the last 8 or so as cd manufactoring rates have fallen so much) that now people feel JUSTIFIED in paying the LEAST possible for music.

    add that to that fact that to the glut of cheap recording gear in the last few years has lead to more albums being released than ever before means music has become nearly worthless.

    which is fine, i guess but spare me the "i want artists to get paid" crap. you want the most for the least. just like you do with hard drives, dvd players and microphones, etc. from china. and just as you don't REALLY care about what a chinese worker makes maunfacturing those things, you don't REALLY care what a musician makes, right?

    and the sad thing is the worker in china probably made just about the same amount last year as i did from my music "career." c'est la vie in the 21st century!

  • Personally, I don't care a bit if artists get paid or not. I'm an artist who actively produces with the intent of not getting paid, and have done so for several years and know many great artists who do the same, so I have no loyalty to the notion that artists are entitled to a living from art.

    Commerce is commerce, though, so if someone has something I'd like for sale, I'm inclined to buy it. As a consumer, of course I'm looking for a deal. But just like I do with my coffee, I'll pay a slight premium if it means supporting my local independent economy over supporting large-scale chains. But that support is contingent on a getting a reasonable price.

  • A new place that you can get some DRM-Free music love are Grooveshark (http://www.grooveshark.com). It's a peer to peer, legal music network currently in ALPHA.

  • Well, of course, in a free market economy no one is actually *entitled* to making a living from anything. My point was just that you're going to make economic decisions — as artists, as labels — that probably are based on some kind of business principle. And our laws (US and international) DO protect your right to do that, against people who want to steal that right. Remember, in the US, at least, initially it wasn't users violating copyright; it was publishers.

    I wasn't setting out to slam eMusic here, I just have some reservations. They seem to have lost some important labels. And in general, consumer and music industry opinion doesn't seem to be blowing in their favor. They don't have any particular focus, other than being cheap, and lacking the selection of both Apple and the Windows Media stores, I'm not sure that's enough for them to remain competitive. I think musicians do have the right to balk if they're so cheap that the volume/margin argument doesn't help. If you're selling 25 tracks a year, you might be better off giving the thing away and retaining control and getting user eyes on your site instead of eMusic's.

    But that's not to say that there's conclusive data on eMusic; I'd want more facts before making final judgment. I just can't advocate them on the basis of them being DRM-free and cheap, not when there are alternatives. There's DRM-laden but cheaper and with more variety (URGE, Rhapsody, etc., which are cheap enough you might just live with the DRM and pay for CDs when you want to copy something). Then there's DRM free, more expensive, but (arguably) higher quality and with deeper selection, like these newer, specialized stores.

    But I'm also the last person to try to predict the future. I never imagined when iPod and iTunes came out that they'd be the hit they are, for instance. Online music sales dynamics still seem a little mysterious — as musicians, the key seems to be how to master promotion and audience-building more than anything else. The only safe bet is that you won't HAVE to use DRM just to make a living or remain visible.

  • FYI, for those interested in the eMusic saga, there's a follow-up at Ars Technica. (Thanks, Patrick.)

    Almost added an entry on that, but while Ars is right to note the lack of specific information and support for the "eMusic labels exodus" story, they don't have any details of their own. eMusic claims their customers spend more than iTunes customers, but there's no comparison with other competition, or sources, or specifics. Nor is there a translation into what this means for labels. Nor is there a real comparison of sales volume.

    So, we're back where we started — having abstract debates over ideas with no solid numbers. That's not to say eMusic is evil or doomed, but trying to argue without knowing the sales numbers is pretty pointless.

    And for eMusic to make the argument that people don't want to spend as much money in a Web 2.0 world because they've never heard of the artists is complete non sequitur. What does Web 2.0 have to do with it? How is eMusic even Web 2.0, even if we did care about that? What do people want to spend on music they have heard of? Why would they spend money on unfamiliar music; wouldn't you buy new music because you like an artist, whether you just discovered them or knew them previously? How is his customer base an unbiased picture of all music customers everywhere?

    And, most importantly, why should a label contribute to devaluing their product? If it increases profits, great! (And if that's the case, then yes, I will join in the argument for an eMusic model.) If not, and I were a label, I would sure pull out. If I wanted to give stuff away, I'd give it away. But you'd need some solid numbers to make that decision, presumably, not an abstract argument about what people want to pay from the guy who came up with the model.

    Like I said, maybe eMusic is onto something. I just want some numbers. And in the meantime, it'll also be interesting to see how this new boutique model performs.

  • velocipede

    KJ, take a chill pill. It is possible to respond to someone's opinion without being mean. I do sympathize with some of your stance.

    My main point was that in a digital world, you could make more money by selling more units at a lower price. Which is better for the artist, one person buying an album for $10 or 10 people buying it for $1 if their income is the same? My guess is the later if the artist is concerned about actually having their music heard.

    Quite frankly, I would not buy most of the albums I have gotten at eMusic if they had been $10. I would be buying less music from fewer artists and I would probably take fewer chances on unknown artists. Maybe I am not typical, but my exposure to newer and lesser-known artists has increased greatly thanks to eMusic. As a result, they are getting some money from me that they would not have gotten otherwise. I guess that a lot of eMusic subscribers end up buying stuff there that they would have never even looked at elsewhere.

    If you don't like eMusic, get your label to leave or get off your label. If the discontent is widespread, then eMusic will have to change its game. Personally, I think it would be better to let artists and labels set their own pricing, even if it is based on a number of downloads in a subscription model. Obviously, albums comprised of a few long tracks end up being priced too low, while those with lots of short tracks become relatively expensive.

    At the end of the day, though, there are more people who want to make music than the market will support as full-time professional musicians. It would be a wonderful world if everyone who wanted to be a musician could make a living doing so, but the fact is it is a field where supply always exceeds demand.

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  • Downloading music will slowly come to an end as we will all start embracing streaming technology. I'm currently a member of Spotify and loving it. The question that arises now is: is there a way artists can make money out of streaming royalties? As for now Spotify royalties are nearly 0. As an electronic artist I'm focusing on live performance and know that even as a niche-artist you can always make money by performing live though.

  • huh… now i see i accidentally arrived in a three year old topic.