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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.

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July 23, 2007

Treatment of Longer Songs by eMusic
by David Harrell

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One of my very first posts for this blog (The Digital Pricing Conundrum Part 1: Song Length and the Number of Tracks) explored the pricing and payout disparities in eMusic and other download stores for albums with varying numbers of tracks. Because the eMusic subscription model is based on individual tracks, albums with relatively few songs can be considered bargains for subscribers, while albums with many tracks are more expensive, as downloading one uses up more of subscriber's monthly tracks allotment.

On the label/artist side of things, I questioned whether it made sense for eMusic to apparently pay labels two or three times the amount for some albums compared with albums with fewer, longer tracks. Some examples here are a 32-track "best of" collection from Guided By Voices and a classic six-track album from Sonny Rollins.

And for albums like this one with extremely long tracks (20 minutes+) I also wondered about situations where the mechanical royalties a label might have to pay on a track could approach the total payout from eMusic for the song.

As it turns out, there is a mechanism in the eMusic model that addresses these issues -- to a degree. A reader was kind enough to share eMusic's breakdown of how it counts longer-than-average tracks when computing payouts to labels. (My band is in the eMusic catalog, but we're there via a distributor, so I don't receive the same level of information as a label that works directly with eMusic...)

The document was marked "CONFIDENTIAL - NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION," so I won't rile up the eMusic folks by reproducing it here. But here's the general gist: For tracks lasting more than seven minutes, eMusic gives extra credit for each download of the song, with a minimum "bonus" of half a track and a maximum of two tracks. For example, a song lasting 7 minutes 20 seconds would count as 1.5 downloads and any track over 20 minutes in length would count as three downloads.

Obviously, these adjustments don't result in complete payout equality for every full album, though they do level the playing field slightly. That six-track Sonny Rollins album gets a boost to seven tracks because of two 10-minute+ tracks. Yet there are plenty of albums with the same total running time (or less) that would result in much larger payouts from eMusic for the full album download. As a group, classic jazz labels appear to be on the short end of the stick with the eMusic model.

On the consumer side of things, I keep thinking that eMusic needs to address this issue, though any cure might be worse than the disease. Besides, while it's easy to find extreme examples of track number/length disparity, I'm not sure if the average subscriber really gives much thought to relative album prices, aside from seeking out the obvious "bargains" in the catalog. The only remedy I can think of would be to switch from a set number of downloads each month to a point system, where longer songs would cost more points and shorter songs fewer points. (Basically a point-per-minute of music system.)

But that change would muddy up a system that is straightforward and easy to understand and use. Plus, it might be perceived as a price increase by anyone who favors genres that feature longer, fewer tracks on each album. So maybe the current system, while not ideal, is the best compromise.

related: Bargains at eMusic and a Royalty Quandary, The Digital Pricing Conundrum Part 1: Song Length and the Number of Tracks


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