"I'm not an innovation freak on the delivery side," Sub Pop chief Jonathan Poneman told me recently via email. "Content remains my principle interest."
Sub Pop has sold more than 129,000 digital copies of Fleet Foxes' 2008 debut LP, but not a single Fleet Foxes key chain.
The problems afflicting the music business haven't been about the content, they've been about delivery. And for over a decade, a cottage industry of startups and ideas--some good ones coming out of the Sub Pop offices--have emerged in an attempt to adequately monetize content through a form of delivery that's better than free and is not wrapped in cellophane.
iTunes and Seattle's Amazon.com have been selling mp3s to customers convinced that they own mp3s in the same way they own that box of Fleetwood Mac and Jim Croce LPs in the basement. Seattle's Rhapsody and its horde of competitors in the music streaming subscription business lease music to customers who care more about having unlimited access to millions of songs than owning a few of them. And for folks somewhere in the middle--still wedded to the idea of ownership but willing to pay a monthly fee for music at a discount--there has been eMusic.When we talk about digital music, we're talking about nothing. We're not talking about cassette tapes. We're not talking about CDs. We're not talking about a double gatefold, 180-gram LP set. We're talking about digital files that sit on a hard drive, that are easier to lose than Canadian pennies, and that listeners only pay for if they choose to. They barely exist. We barely own them.
The genius of eMusic is that it allowed customers to experience the mirage of ownership that iTunes provided, but at a steep discount. In 2004 you could spend a little as $10 a month for 40 tracks, a steal compared to 99-cents a pop on iTunes. The catch? The major labels weren't playing ball. The upside? Most of the indies were, which is why fans of Neko Case, Miles Davis, and Creedence Clearwater flocked to the service.
But as eMusic courted the Michael Jacksons and Rollings Stones of the world, the monthly fees got higher, and the musical compensation to customers not quite as generous. And earlier this month eMusic announced that it had secured another massive influx of major label tunes, courtesy of Sony and Warner. At the same time, eMusic essentially started charging subscribers between 49 with 89 cents per track, deducted from their monthly subscrption fee, now operating more like a purse. The days of a flat number of tracks per month are over.
In the process, some of the indie core balked. Domino Records (Arctic Monkeys), Merge Records (Arcade Fire), and Beggars Group (Cat Power, New Pornographers), were unwilling to accept the terms of eMusic's new deal and pulled their catalogues. But Sub Pop, a relative late comer to the party that only added their catalogue of artists - ranging from Nirvana to Fleet Foxes - to the service in March, is sticking with eMusic.
"I appreciate why the other labels bailed; eMusic's model is fundamentally changing," Poneman says. "With the influx of so much new content, a quality that made eMusic unique may be threatened, and that may have negative effects on the revenue side for the veteran labels. That said, our experience with eMusic has been positive: they have given us some meaningful exposure, they're music fans and they pay regularly. We chose to? give the new model a chance."
The most intriguing model Sub Pop has flirted with is the idea of pairing their nothing business (mp3s) with something tangible, something to remind digital music customers that they bought an album. Last summer, Sub Pop general manager Megan Jasper told SW that, "we're not at all opposed to expanding into the fine world of t-shirts, hats, beer cozies, and key chains. We used to give many of these tchotchke items away for free in an effort to entice people to pay for the music, but we're considering flipping our strategy so that people pay for the toy and receive the music for free. Just a thought."
Asked if Sub Pop had any plans to plans try and get customers to "pay for the toy and receive the music for free" in 2011, Poneman didn't sound too enthusiastic. "I was going to offer you an original pressing of 'Love Buzz' b/w 'Big Cheese' by Nirvana, but I have this key chain for you instead..."
Not a death kneel to the idea, but certainly not an endorsement, this is a fantastically romantic notion, even for someone who admits to being "not an innovation freak on the delivery side." Poneman knows that Sub Pop has been selling things less tangible and memorable than key chains for years. Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut, for example, has sold 129,000 digital copies--overally, 362,000 have sold in the U.S.--in addition to 250,000 individual tracks from the album, according to SoundScan. Key chains aren't going to replace vinyl, but attaching a real-world representation--such as a poster or booklet--to a digital purchase is only going to make virtual records that much more interesting.
When you cancel Rhapsody, you're left with nothing. And when you discontinue your subscription to eMusic, you only get to keep your music until your computer crashes, you lose your iPhone, or you switch jobs and inevitably do not back up your music correctly, and you are left with nothing.
Even a key chain is better than nothing.
Note: This post has been corrected to clarify that you do technically own and get to keep the music downloaded from eMusic in the same way you do tracks from iTunes, and enjoy them until you misplace them, as noted above. eMusic subscribers used to be able to re-download tracks. The new policy requires subscribers to purchase the music again unless there is a technical problem.