In the ever-changing pay-to-play market, liberal usage policies and fresh editorial content have kept eMusic afloat. Although the company no longer prescribes to the free-for-all frame of mind that dominated its early days, users are still rewarded with unlimited playing, burning, and transferring of files provided in the nearly universally supported MP3 format. The one caveat? You must subscribe to one of three plans: choose 40 downloads for US$9.99, 65 downloads for US$14.99, or 90 downloads for US$19.99. Though eMusic's per-song price works out to be a comparatively cheap 22 to 25 cents (currently about 30-34 cents AUD), those who prefer the freedom of a la carte downloading (and more mainstream music) are better off with open-handed stores such as iTunes. However, the service currently offers a 2 week, 25 song free trial.
All the music is available in MP3 and encoded at a variable bit rate (VBR). The resulting sound quality for these files is excellent, and there are no copy restrictions, so you're free to transfer music to a CD or a portable player with impunity. Plus, if you reach the maximum downloads that your plan allows, you can now purchase eMusic Booster Packs that include either 10, 25, or 50 songs. The 30-second previews are the only way to stream music from the site.
You must access eMusic though your Web browser. To grab and burn songs, you can either download an additional utility called the Download Manager, use a download manager you already have, or just download tracks directly through the browser. However, if you go with the latter method, you must disable eMusic's Download Manager in your account preferences. Then, files are saved with an unknown file extension, which you must then change to .mp3. This can be a confusing process for novices.
On the site, you can search by artist, album, track, label, or composer, or search one of 12 genres including Alternative/Punk, Country/Folk, Electronic and Jazz. The front page also displays New Arrivals, eMusic Picks (with star ratings), Columns, and links to live recordings. eMusic has assembled a team of well-known music critics and curators to provide album picks and reviews, and to write columns promoted with taglines like Philip Sherburne Chronicles the Rise, Fall, and Return of Acid House. The editors' snarky style makes browsing a pleasure while taking the musical experience beyond just browsing and downloading.
All the tunes available through eMusic are legitimately licensed from record labels and artists, so you don't have to worry about a midnight visit from the authorities. The last time we checked, eMusic carried 500,000 high-quality MP3 files from 1,200 independent music labels, many of which cannot be found at competing online music stores. However, they're all indie, so forget about Britney Spears, 50 Cent, and Madonna. The collection is most fully filled-out in the rock genre, but eMusic also offers a fantastic assortment of older jazz and blues, as well as a surprisingly large selection of world music. When you find a tempting song, you can preview a 30-second sample, in both QuickTime and Windows Media, or download it on the spot. One timesaving option we love is the ability to download an entire album at once using the button below the album's song list.
Though eMusic is a pleasure to use, navigating its listings could be easier. Once you've selected a genre, you can view songs either alphabetically or by popularity. If you browse by popularity, you can't see how many pages are left, and if you browse alphabetically, you can see only one letter at a time. Community features have been upgraded to reflect the musical passions common in the indie scene. For example, users can view other subscribers' top artist choices as well as the top fans for a specific artist. There is also a user review section as well as an online five-star rating system. Ancillary information such as Similar Artists, Roots and Influences, and Followers are presented in a tidy and accessible manner. This is an essential part of discovering new (and unfamiliar) music.
In terms of tech support, eMusic gets average marks. The Web site's nicely organised, well-written FAQs address basic technical issues, billing, and general subscription questions in an easy-to-understand and friendly manner. You can also search the Help section and contact eMusic using an online form. Representatives answered our e-mail fairly quickly. But there's no telephone support, and if you have an involved question, you'll probably find yourself wishing you could call and talk to a human.