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Albums aren't dead yet, at least on EMusic

September 16, 2009 |  5:38 pm

Not long after Napster's song-swapping software arrived in 1999, CD sales started what now appears to be an inexorable slide toward zero. It's not just the fact that Napster helped people copy songs free from other Internet users; it freed consumers from having to buy whole albums in order to get the one or two tracks they really wanted. The iTunes Store did the same thing for music buyers.

But is the album dead (for more than just Radiohead, that is)? Today, EMusic -- a subscription service that offers bulk discounts on MP3s -- announced that full-album downloads made up 72% of its sales over the last year. That's up from 69% since 2006. The music industry as a whole is headed the other way, with digital track sales climbing and albums dwindling. Twice as many singles were sold in 2008 than CDs and digital albums (although if you assume the average album had 12 songs, albums still accounted for about 80% of all tracks sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan's numbers). Meanwhile, Apple says the split on iTunes is about 50-50, with half the tracks sold as individual downloads and the other half in albums. So EMusic is clearly doing something better when it comes to moving albums than Apple, despite the absence of liner notes or special packaging.

EMusic suggests, and Billboard's Glenn Peoples agrees, that the site's album-centric layout and editorial content make the difference:

EMusic encourages complete album purchases with editorial features that place albums in context, including career surveys of leading artist's catalogues ("Icons”), examining an artist's peers and influencers ("Six Degrees”), and overviews of genres, labels and favorites ("eMusic Dozens”). Additionally, eMusic's album and artist pages include related artist information from YouTube, Flickr and Wikipedia.

More important, I think, are two other factors. First, EMusic subscribers are avid music fans. They commit to spending $12 or more a month to buy MP3s that, until July, came exclusively from independent labels and artists. (The company added older Sony releases in July, around the same time it announced the latest price hike for new subscribers.) Fans are less likely than casual listeners to be satisfied with one or two tracks from an album -- they want to hear the whole mix. And second, the significant discounts provided at EMusic encourage people to spend more freely. An album on EMusic costs the equivalent of $4 to $5, depending on the user's subscription plan, and that price isn't much of a leap from two 99-cent downloads on iTunes.

I wonder, though, if EMusic's last few price increases will eventually make people much more particular about their downloads. The company is eliminating the generous annual plans that allowed music fiends such as myself to download 65 songs for about $14 a month. Instead, the plans will have lower monthly rations, and per-track prices will average 40 to 50 cents. When you only have 24 tracks, you're much less likely to download a full LP on a whim. EMusic tried to soften the blow of the lower monthly allotments by announcing that some albums would be offered as bundles, enabling people to, for example, use only 12 credits to download all 16 tracks of Sloan's excellent "A sides win" LP. And full-album downloads have actually increased since then as a percentage of EMusic's sales, to 75%. Unfortunately, some labels (cough cough Sony cough cough) are using the bundling tool to charge more for full LPs than they would have been able to without it. For example, six of the nine tracks of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" are available only with a full album download, which costs 12 credits. You can probably guess the six tracks.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.