digital audio insider

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Digital Audio Insider is David Harrell's blog about the economics of music and other digital content. I write from the perspective of a musican who has self-released four albums with the indie rock band the Layaways.

My personal website has links to my LinkedIn and Google+ pages and you can send e-mail to david [at] thelayaways [dot] com.

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If you enjoy this site, please consider downloading a Layaways track or album from iTunes, Amazon MP3, Bandcamp, or eMusic. CDs are available from CD Baby and Amazon.

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January 26, 2006

The Digital Pricing Conundrum Part II: The 99 Cent Barrier and Popularity-Based Pricing
by David Harrell
If you're the type to read this blog, then you already know that the major labels are grousing in a major way about the 99 cent download price established by iTunes. While Apple has shown some flexibility on pricing, going both above and below the $9.99 mark for an entire album, Steve Jobs is thus far holding firm on the 99 cent price for individual downloads.

The labels' beef is that while all of those downloads over the past year were great for the bottom line, they also represent millions in lost potential revenue. Their basic argument has two components: First, by making every track from an album available as a single, "full album" sales are cannibalized. A portion of those 99-cent "single" sales would have been $9.99 full album sales, if that had been the only way to obtain the track in question. Second, if consumers are purchasing one or two individual tracks in lieu of a $9.99 album, then they're probably willing to a pay a bit more than 99 cents. After all, even at $1.99 per track, it's still a bargain if you really only want one song from an album.

As a music fan, I'm obviously not sympathetic to any effort to raise prices for downloads. And I don't necessarily buy the argument that a ton of single song downloads from an album means that, faced with no other choice, enough of those buyers would have bought the whole album to surpass the profits from the single sales.

Still, I'll concede one point to the major labels: Equal pricing for all individual tracks ignores the reality that different songs have varying levels of value to consumers. That value can fluctuate based both on the artist in question (a new track by 50 Cent is worth more in the marketplace than an old Foghat song) and within the context of an album or an artist's total recorded output. That is, many casual fans care more about the "hit" song on album than its less popular tracks.

Obviously, the second point is a new reality, created by the advent of digital downloads. Music fans had favorite album tracks in the past, but the concept of relative value was irrelevant -- unless a song was available as a single, your only legit option was to buy the whole album. That's not the case anymore.

Is there a way to fairly price downloads that accounts for varying perceived value and is also acceptable to music consumers? I suspect the labels' preferred method would be to simply jack up the album/song price for newer releases. Say $14.99 for the album and $1.49 for individual tracks for new releases, and keep the $9.99/99 cent model for older catalog material. This approach is certainly logical and analogous to current CD pricing, where the list price for new major label releases can be double that of older catalog albums.

But such a change would result in prices for album downloads that would equal or even exceed that of physical CDs. Is this a feasible strategy? Last week, in an excellent column in the Chicago Reader about the possible end of the 99-cent download, Douglas Wolk made the case that at least some consumers are willing to pay a premium for the convenience of downloading digital music:
If it costs a few dollars more to buy an Eminem album as a set of protected, nontransferable files with no artwork and no liner notes from iTunes than it does to go to a record store and buy a higher-fidelity physical copy that you can sell later if you don't like it, are you crazy to go for the iTunes version? Not if it's worth it to you to get it instantly, without the hassle of driving to the store or waiting for Amazon to deliver your package.
(Here's the link to the story, with the warning that it's a large PDF file that takes a long time to load.) Convenience is clearly a factor in digital sales, even beyond the hassle of schlepping to a record store or waiting for an Amazon order. Back in 2003, 12:51, the first single from the second Strokes album made the top 10 chart at iTunes, despite the fact that a high-quality mp3 of the song was available (and can still be found) at the band's website. And I've downloaded tracks from eMusic that I already own on CD, just to save the bother of ripping a specific song to mp3.

For now, though, let's assume that any large-scale increases above the $9.99 album price would be unacceptable to the overall buying public. Without a change in the album price, is there a logical way to price individual songs?

Last week, in Part I in this series, one proposal floated for getting around the issues associated with varying song lengths was to simply price each track based on its portion of the overall album length. However,that idea is fundamentally flawed because no one equates song length with song quality, it's an issue that only comes up in the context of pricing downloads.

Consider "Revolution 9" from the Beatles' "White Album." At eight minutes and 13 seconds it's by far the longest song on the album. But if the Beatles' catalog ever makes it online, I doubt anyone would see the logic in charging more than twice the price of "Blackbird" for one of the least popular tracks on the album.

So how about using track popularity to establish market prices for each of the songs on an album? Back in December, Slate ran an article that proposed treating song downloads as a commodities and basing the price on the relative demand for each. At the time, I thought this was a rather asinine idea, given -- as pointed out by many readers of the story -- that by definition a commodity is something available only in a limited quantity.

But a modified version of this idea might be worth exploring. Instead of the Slate approach, which would price a song based on its popularity among all songs in the marketplace, this method would base price on popularity within the context of an album.

Let's take a look at a specific example, Synchronicity, the final studio album by the Police, released in 1983. According to Last.fm, the online music community and listener-tracking site, 68,247 members have listened to the Police recently and tracks from Synchronicity have been spun 44,624 times. (No doubt a very small percentage of total listeners worldwide, but it's probably safe to assume that their collective listening habits mirror the total audience for the band.) As you might guess, the hit single "Every Breath You Take" is the most-listened to song on the album, accounting for 14,281 recent listens by Last.fm members. And "Mother," guitarist Andy Summer's sole songwriting contribution to the disc is the least popular with just 1,154 listens (sorry, Andy).

Multiply $9.99 by each song's percentage of total plays for all of the songs on the album and you get a price list that looks like this:

Synchronicity, the Police, Priced By Listening Habits
Song Price $
Every Breath You Take 3.20
King of Pain 1.67
Wrapped Around Your Finger 1.41
Synchronicity II 0.90
Tea in the Sahara 0.80
Synchronicity I 0.41
Murder by Numbers 0.35
Walking in Your Footsteps 0.35
O My God 0.33
Miss Gradenko 0.32
Mother 0.26
Based on Last.fm listening statistics as of 1/26/2006

This isn't going to work. The first big problem is that the $3.20 price for "Every Breath You Take" would be unpalatable to consumers (and very likely to drive customers who would've paid 99 cents for the song straight to a file-sharing service). Also, it exceeds any price the major labels would consider for a single-song download. And for a band that was truly a one hit wonder, a single song might account for even a larger portion of the $9.99 album price. Then you have the potential problem of unpopular tracks being priced below the statutory mechanical royalty rate.

Clearly, a straight-line popularity pricing strategy isn't the answer. You might instead start with a minimum track price and adjust upward based on track popularity, or perhaps set a maximum price for the most popular track, say $1.99, and work your way down to price the remaining tracks.

Yet even with such modifications, there's another issue, a band might release a song on several albums -- on the original album, as part of a greatest hits collection, etc. While "Every Breath You Take" accounts for around 32% of the tracks plays of the Synchronicity album, in the context of the Police's greatest hits CD, it accounts for fewer spins. Popularity would have to be considered in the context of a band's entire catalog. The problem is, overall song popularity changes over time and very suddenly whenever a band releases a new album.

Finally, how could this method work for new releases? A record label might choose the "singles" from a new album before its release date, but there's no way to accurately predict which songs fans will, on average, listen to the most.

So I'm nixing song popularity as the basis for individual track pricing. Stay tuned for Part III of this series and a proposed pricing plan that would maintain the $9.99 album price, give the labels more money for the most popular tracks, yet still keep music fans happy.

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January 23, 2006

Music Search Shootout
by David Harrell
Yahoo recently added a new audio option on its search page, which I somehow missed until reading this post on the Yahoo Music Blog. Of course, I immediately did a vanity search for my own band. The results were thorough, more so than those of Google's relatively new music search option.

So I decided to move up the food chain, using both search services to look up additional bands on the bigger indie labels and a couple major label acts. It's a very unscientific comparison -- random bands and just a few of them. But in all cases, Yahoo links to more download and streaming options for each song/album:

Music Search Results -- Number of Download Options:
Song/Band/Label Type Google Yahoo
Silence by the Layaways
(micro indie)
2 6
Sugercube by Yo La Tengo
(big indie)
4 7
Naked As We Came by Iron and Wine
(big indie)
3 5
The Modern Age by the Strokes
(major)
2 8
The Comeback by the Shout Out Louds
(major)
1 5

Google's consistent failure to find tracks on the music service of its competitor Yahoo seemed slightly suspicious at first. However, at this point, its search universe appears to be limited to iTunes, Sony Connect, Rhapsody, and eMusic, so I wouldn't go so far as to imply that Google is blocking Yahoo links from its results. This limited universe pretty much guarantees that Yahoo will provide more download options.

I have a slight preference for the Google page design, though. Its simpler interface seems a bit easier to use and you're less likely to get lost in a big list of all of an artist's songs. The Google functionality hasn't been added to the official home page yet, so I'm assuming it's still considered a "beta" capability. Of course, Google tends to keep things in beta for years (Google News for example). I wonder when/if Google will expand its search universe to include the other major online music services.

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January 19, 2006

The Digital Pricing Conundrum Part 1: Song Length and the Number of Tracks
by David Harrell
In the late 1990s, I worked a regular Saturday shift at a Chicago record store. The pay was negligible, but I received an employee discount and had a first crack at all of the used CDs that came in. Plus, in those dark days before mp3 blogs and Internet radio, it was the best way to sample new music.

There was a staff of three on Saturdays and we'd "rotate picks" to choose the discs for in-store play. My two co-workers often opted for rap and hip-hip and I usually spun indie rock. I paid a price for that stylistic choice: Most of my CD selections had about 45 minutes of music while my co-workers' picks, with longer songs and more of them, often lasted 70+ minutes. My nominal 1/3 control of the store's stereo was sabotaged by the average track length and number of tracks of our respective CD picks.

Today, track length and the number of tracks on an album are both resulting in some major pricing discrepancies within (and between) online music stores. Let's start with iTunes, which uses a default album price of $9.99. A single slice of that pie costs 99 cents. The trouble is -- if albums are pies -- they come in different sizes and the number of slices varies with each one. As the following examples will show, it can create some real chaos. (This model, with some variations in base track/album prices, pretty much holds for the bulk of the online stores. Apple does deviate from the $9.99 album price on occasion, but not the 99 cent track price.)

Then there's the eMusic subscription model, where you pay for a set number of downloads each month. I've got the 40 for $9.99 plan, which works out to 25 cents per track, assuming you use all of your downloads. The issue here is that all downloads count equally against your monthly allotment, be they 30- second mini-songs or 20-minute opuses.

A great example of digital pricing confusion is this recent pick of mine from eMusic: McLemore Avenue by Booker T. and The M.G.'s. The 1970 release covers most of the Beatles' Abbey Road and the album artwork even features the M.G.'s crossing the street outside the Stax recording studio, just like the famed Abbey Road photo. On eMusic, it's a major bargain, as most of the songs segue into each other, so it counts as only four downloads against your monthly subscription, for a net cost of around $1. Over at iTunes, that same album costs $9.99, but how can you then charge 99 cents for the four tracks? You can't, so iTunes lets you buy the two shorter ones for 99 cents each and makes the other two "album only." And things get really goofy over at the MSN store, where the longest track on this album is priced at $1.39 and the other three at 99 cents. You can download all four tracks for a grand total of $4.36 but MSN also gives the option of downloading the entire album for $8.91!

On average, there's an iTunes/eMusic pricing multiple of approximately four: 99 versus 25 cents per track. But for this specific album it's 10, as the average track price in iTunes is nearly $2.50. The eMusic model, though, is absolutely brutal when it comes to albums with lots of short songs. Download Human Amusements At Hourly Rates by Guided By Voices and you'll burn through 32 of your monthly downloads. That's around eight bucks worth of a $9.99 subscription, so in this case the iTunes/eMusic multiple is down to 1.25.

While the Booker T. album makes a great anecdotal example, it's not just a case of a few odd albums causing pricing anomalies. Entire genres of music are affected. Many classic jazz albums feature just a few, relatively long tracks, making them incredible bargains on eMusic. Saxophone Colossus by Sonny Rollins is a mere five tracks, Relaxin' With The Miles Davis Quintet has only six tracks, and so on. (MSN somehow failed to catch this quirk: As with the Booker T. album, you can purchase all of the tracks from these discs for much less than the "buy album" price.)

From a consumer's standpoint, should a Guided By Voices disc cost eight times as much at eMusic as does a Booker T. and the M.G.'s album? And for the artist and record company, should a musician be penalized (or rewarded) for artistic decisions made about song length and the number of tracks on a disc?

If there was an easy answer, I'm thinking it would've been figured out by now. The simplest solution I can imagine is setting a standard price for an album download, then dividing that amount by the number of tracks on the disc to price individual song downloads. Another option would be to charge for music by the minute, using $9.99 for a 45-minute album as a starting point to establish a 22.2 cent charge per minute of digital music. (This model is somewhat in line with how mechanical royalties are paid for both physical CD sales and digital downloads. These royalties go to songwriters and publishers and are separate from artist royalties, which are usually set as a percentage of the wholesale price of a format. As of 1/1/2006, mechanical royalties have increased to 9.1 cents per song for songs of five minute or less, anything longer than that is paid at 1.75 cents per minute.)

But both of these solutions go against the "one price" that Steve Jobs is currently holding the line on at iTunes. And both would create a ton of accounting headaches for the digital stores, basically resulting in an infinite number of royalty rates. Plus, while I doubt most musicians would give it too much thought, it does create economic incentives for artists and record companies that could affect creative decisions. Making the fadeout on a potential hit single a bit longer could mean thousands more in digital royalties for an established artist. On the other hand, an unknown artist might feel pressured to keep songs short, to create a "bargain" price for a track.

You could argue that despite all of these weird pricing elements, consumers are still coming out ahead with digital music sales in that they now have the option now of buying single tracks instead of entire records. Whatever the track price, it's still a major bargain if you only want one or two songs from an album. Which is no doubt one factor behind the major labels' push to lift the 99 cent price ceiling, something that will be covered in part II of this series.

(Correction -- the bit about Apple's occasional deviation from the $9.99 price was added on 1/20.)

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January 17, 2006

Corrections and Coming Soon
by David Harrell
I made some additional changes to last week's post on Why Music Subscriptions Are Like Health Clubs. The changes are noted in the post itself, but the health club comparison really doesn't hold for eMusic, as its royalty costs are apparently a (very large) fixed percentage of its subscription revenues. Still, the health club model remains the basis for any of the other subscription services that pay a fixed, per-stream royalty (Rhapsody, Yahoo's Y! Unlimited, and others): customers who listen a lot are a net loss, any profits must come from a larger portion of the subscriber base that listens less frequently.

Coming later this week: the first post in a series on the digital pricing conundrum -- part I, the problem with varying song lengths and tracks per album.

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January 10, 2006

Rhapsody, Streams, and Royalties
by David Harrell
After posting yesterday's piece on music subscriptions and royalty fees, I came across this interview with Rob Glaser of Real Networks. According to Glaser, Rhapsody subscribers are, on average, listening to around 200 tracks a month. At that usage rate, Rhapsody's royalty expenses -- as a percentage of subscriber fees -- are much less than eMusic's.

However, with the $9.99 monthly subscription price, the average Rhapsody subscriber is spending close to five cents per stream. Which seems somewhat pricey compared to owning an mp3 for quarter from eMusic. And while I'm not sure people would pay a nickel for a la carte streams, when it's packaged as a subscription, they obviously don't seem to mind. I suppose it's a completely different mindset, as you've already made the subscription purchase decision (perhaps months ago) and you're probably not thinking in terms of cost per song.

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January 09, 2006

Why Music Subscriptions Are Like Health Clubs
by David Harrell
You've probably heard of the "health club business model." The idea is to sign up as many people as possible for a service that most are unlikely to fully use. A health club would be overrun if all of its members exercised regularly, but since most of us have better intentions than discipline for exercise, gym attendance drops dramatically as New Year's resolutions are broken. And if you never get around to canceling that membership, the result is a "free" income stream for the health club. Gym rats get their money's worth from their memberships, the rest of us are paying for something that we don't use.

Of course, if you think about it, this principle applies to pretty much any business that offers an unlimited commodity or service for a fixed price: Lose money on a few customers and make it back (and more) with the rest. An all-you-can-eat restaurant can tolerate a few gluttons because of most of the dining crowd isn't so ravenous. Similarly, a healthy majority subsidizes the seriously ill within a health insurance plan.

With online music subscriptions, there's no worry that subscribers will overrun a physical location (for the sake of argument let's assume that server capacity is unlimited) and "running out" of downloads obviously isn't an issue. But there is an unavoidable limiting factor -- the fees the service must pay record companies and distributors for each song downloaded or streamed. Here are the details for Rhapsody Unlimited and eMusic, based on the actual per-song payouts that I've seen:

Rhapsody Unlimited allows subscribers unlimited listening to all of the tracks in its catalog for $9.99 a month. From that subscription fee, record companies and distributors are paid one cent for every song streamed. While $9.99 would cover 999 songs a month (ignoring all other business expenses for Rhapsody), a subscriber can easily exceed that number. Assuming an average song length of 4 minutes, you can listen to 15 songs in an hour. It'd take a whopping 67 hours of listening time each month to hear 999 tracks, but that averages out to just over two hours and 15 minutes a day. Factoring in other costs (servers, salaries, marketing, etc.), any customer who regularly listens for an hour or two daily is probably a net loss for Rhapsody.

With eMusic, it's all downloads, not streams. There are three subscription plans, starting at $9.99 a month. Technically, eMusic has a revenue sharing model where a percentage of its subscription revenue paid back to the record companies and distributors. But the revenue share dollars are translated into a per-track royalty each month when paying the record companies. (I'm assuming the revenue sharing amount is simply divided by the total number of downloads for the month.) Due to reporting lag, I only have data for one month of our sales via eMusic. For May 2005, it was 24 cents a track.

Because "royalties" are a fixed percentage of revenue for eMusic, it doesn't really matter how many tracks subscribers download each month. But it is interesting to see that how the royalty-per-track paid for a specific month compares to the subscription prices:

eMusic royalty costs per subscriber, May 2005
Subscription Plan Downloads per Month Maximum payout to record companies
$9.99 40 $9.60
$14.99 65 $15.60
$19.99 90 $21.60

In this interview, CEO David Pakman says that eMusic subscribers are currently averaging 31 downloads a month. Using the 24-cent-per-track royalty rate from May, that would translate into a revenue sharing amount in excess of 70% of the base subscription price. Given other expenses -- including what appear to be massive customer acquisition costs as eMusic pays its web affiliates a $6 bounty for every new trial user they deliver -- it seems likely that eMusic's current profit margin is razor thin, at best.

I'm wondering if such numbers are the reason behind Apple/Steve Jobs's reluctance to offer a music subscription service. From what I've read, Apple doesn't make much (if any) money on the downloads sold at iTunes, though the service does help Apple sell gazillions of very profitable iPods. But given the devotion of iPod/iTunes customers, maybe Jobs figures they're all a bunch of gym rats that would stream tracks all day with an iTunes subscription service, putting a major dent in Apple's bottom line.

(Note: some changes were made to the eMusic section on 1/17/2006, after I confirmed that eMusic did in fact have a revenue sharing model. Which means that the health club comparison really doesn't hold for eMusic, though I'm still amazed about the percentage of its subscription revenues that eMusic pays to the record companies.)

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January 04, 2006

Download Rollovers
by David Harrell
As a customer, my one small complaint about the eMusic model is the "use-it-or-lose-it" component of your subscription: If you don't use all of your monthly allotment of downloads, they expire. On the flipside, as discussed in my previous post, I think this feature actually benefits the artists distributed by eMusic by encouraging customers to take chances on unknown bands.

Some cell phone plans allow you to rollover your unused minutes each month and it seems like a similar feature would be great for eMusic subscribers. But that's extremely unlikely to happen. Here's why:

It'd be an absolute nightmare for eMusic. Accounting regulations require companies to recognize revenue and expenses at the same time. With subscriptions, even if the money is paid up front, a firm can't recognize that revenue until the product/service is delivered. (This is a simplified explanation based on some details about "deferred subscription liability" that my stock analyst colleague Joe B. kindly shared with me.) If a subscriber piles up hundreds of downloads by rolling over each month's download allotment, eMusic can't recognize the monthly subscription revenue. And, unlike providers of cell phone service, where the liability is primarily an internal expense, eMusic has huge external expenses associated with each download -- the money that must be paid to the record company or distributor for each song. (More on this in an upcoming post!) So don't hold your breath waiting for a rollover option for your subscription.

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January 03, 2006

eMusic and iTunes
by David Harrell
I'm a big fan of eMusic, both as a subscriber and as a musician with tracks available via the service. Businessweek's Byte of the Apple blog recently posted this interview with eMusic CEO David Pakman. Reader comments on the story include some thoughts about song length and pricing (a 30-second song and a 20 minute track both count the same against your monthly download allotment) and the audiences for each service.

I'm saving the variable pricing issue for an upcoming post, but here are a couple of quick thoughts on the eMusic audience:

1. Self selection -- because eMusic doesn't carry any current major label releases, anyone who subscribes to eMusic is, by default, someone receptive to music outside the mainstream.

2. Use it or lose it -- your download allotment at eMusic expires each month, whether or not you download anything. So by the end of the month, subscribers are very inclined to take a gamble on an unknown artist.

Hence, indie bands should probably expect more sales from eMusic than iTunes. My own band has two albums available via iTunes and one (the first) currently available at eMusic. Because of reporting lag, I've only seen one month of data for our eMusic sales, but it was a good one. Though Apple pays out more per track to record companies and distributors than eMusic (70 cents vs. 24 cents), I expect we'll make more in the long run from eMusic.

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Welcome
by David Harrell
Welcome...
...to Digital Audio Insider!

This blog will explore the economics (and other issues) of online distribution of digital music, from the perspective of the music consumer AND the music provider.

As the former, your host is an avid music fan -- iPod, subscriptions to eMusic, Yahoo! Unlimited, and Audible.com, and more than 30 linear feet of CDs in my living room. (There are also more boxes of cassettes and LPs than I want to think about...)

And as the latter, I'm in an indie-rock band that has two albums in the usual digital music channels (iTunes, eMusic, Napster, etc.) and a third one on the way. Relatively speaking, I'm a bit player, but one with something of an inside view of the payment structures of the different music stores and distributors.

Upcoming features will include interviews with bands that have embraced online distribution, record companies, and mp3 bloggers. Comments are enabled and always welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

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    THE LAYAWAYS

    Out Now -- "Maybe Next Year" -- The New Holiday Album:

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/maybe-next-year">Joy To The World by The Layaways</a>

    "This is a sweet treat, deliciously musical without being overbaked for mass media consumption." -- Hyperbolium

    "Perfect listening to accompany whatever holiday preparations you may be making today." -- Bag of Songs


    O Christmas Tree - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    Away In A Manger - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or Bandcamp. Listen to free streams at Last.fm.



    album cover art from The Space Between

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/the-space-between">Keep It To Yourself by The Layaways</a>

    "...about as melodic and hooky as indie pop can get." -- Absolute Powerpop

    "Their laid-back, '60s era sounds are absolutely delightening." -- 3hive

    "...melodic, garage-influenced shoegaze." -- RCRD LBL

    Where The Conversation Ends - free mp3
    January - free mp3
    Keep It To Yourself - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or CD Baby, stream it at Last.fm or Napster.



    album cover art from We've Been Lost

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/weve-been-lost">Silence by The Layaways</a>

    "The Layaways make fine indie pop. Hushed vocals interweave with understated buzzing guitars. The whole LP is a revelation from the start." -- Lost Music

    "Catchy Guided by Voices-like rockers who lay it on sweetly and sincerely, just like Lionel Richie." -- WRUV Radio

    Silence - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    The Long Night - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at Last.fm, Napster, or Rhapsody.



    album cover art from More Than Happy

    "These are songs that you want to take home with you, curl up with, hold them close -- and pray that they are still with you when you wake up." -- The Big Takeover

    Let Me In - free mp3
    Ocean Blue - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at Last.fm, Napster, or Rhapsody.

    More Layaways downloads:

    download the Layaways at eMusic download the Layaways at iTunes

    the layaways website