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eMusic adds a little streaming to its MP3 store

EMusic Radio

The core challenge for music subscription services is helping people find enough new and compelling tracks each month to persuade them to keep paying the monthly fee. For eMusic, this task has been complicated by the fact that its service doesn't let users stream the songs they find on the site, as its competitors do. That's because eMusic isn't an online jukebox; it's a place to buy MP3s at a discount, sort of like iTunes but with better prices ($.49 to $.89 per track) and a monthly spending requirement (the plans start at $11.99). Users have been limited to streaming 30-second samples of the tracks they were considering buying, as well as reading reviews by critics and other users.

Tuesday, eMusic took its first, limited step into streaming in an effort to help users discover unfamiliar tracks and artists more easily. Using technology from The Echo Nest, a sophisticated music preference engine, eMusic is now offering 50 virtual radio stations organized around genres or themes -- e.g., "Hearts on Fire: the Underbelly of Soul and Country" and "Gimme Indie Rock." Each station will have 50 or 60 tracks picked by eMusic's editors and contributors, aided by The Echo Nest's technology for finding songs with complementary sonic attributes.

The radio stations will be available free to eMusic subscribers. Also starting Tuesday, non-subscribers will also be able to stream the stations for free, but only for 10 hours.

It's not the same as letting users play specific songs or artists on demand. But Rich Caccappolo, eMusic's chief technology officer, said the site will integrate the stations into artist and album pages, providing links to stations featuring that artist's music.

It's also just the first in a series of steps the company hopes to take to improve its music discovery features. According to Caccappolo, future moves may include 90-second samples and even letting subscribers stream full songs once for free, as LaLa used to do. And eMusic is working with EchoNest to enable users to generate playlists automatically from their collections, potentially incorporating a few new tracks they don't own that match their tastes.

This is a good direction for eMusic, which has gone through some drastic changes in recent years as it tries to build its audience. Those changes include a sharp increase in price as the company added the four major record companies and several top independent labels to its roster.

Caccappolo said eMusic's following today is "collectors, passionate music fans" -- the sorts of people who buy whole albums rather than cherry-picking singles. This is a group that craves to discover unfamiliar artists and bands, and it's not well served at all by the heavy rotation of hits served up by commercial radio stations. 

Of course, that's also the group rival subscription services are recruiting, and some of them have very effective music-discovery tools. With The Echo Nest's help, eMusic's just got a bit better.

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him @jcahealey

 
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