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eMusic’s semi-curated approach to internet radio – a review of eMusic Radio

eMusic Radio

eMmusic is an online music store that pretty much pioneered the sale of unprotected MP3 music tracks in the early 2000s. The site has gone through ownership and business model changes over the years, shifting from its original monthly all-you-can-download plan to a number-of-tracks a month, and finally to the current X dollars a month subscription now offered. Because the big labels were initially scared of freely-trade-able MP3s, most of eMusic’s offerings were indie until a few years ago when some of the majors started to sign up. Not coincidentally, that’s also when eMusic’s prices went up, too.

Perhaps to add some additional value to subscribers’ monthly fee that buys less music than it used to, eMusic debuted its own radio service back in August. The service has always had some editorial content to accompany its download selection, with features on particular genres, subgenres or artists, as well as articles that highlight labels or particular scenes. eMusic Radio attempts to dip into that same editorial well, offering niche stations that lean towards curatorial eclecticism.

Unlike Pandora or Spotify, eMusic’s Radio “programs” (they don’t call them stations) are not user-customized or generated. Ostensibly each program is more like a DJ set, picked by knowledgeable music experts, rather than a auto-generated stream of music based upon a seed band or song. Thus eMusic offers programs like 80s One Hit Wonders, Brooklyn’s Finest and Explore Blue Note Records.

I’ve been an eMusic subscriber on and off for the last decade since I received my first free download voucher with the purchase of a CD burner. Yet the current pricing model has led me to cancel my subscription at the end of this term. Over the last six weeks or so I’ve checked out eMusic Radio to see how it stacks up against a service like Pandora or Spotify, or as an alternative to other internet radio.

On the whole I have to say that I’ve found eMusic Radio to be quite underwhelming. While the idea of having multiple curated programs at my disposal, the reality is that I’ve found most of them come up short.

Yacht Rock

The first station I tried out was disappointing pretty much right from the start. I tuned in the Yacht Rock station in order to get a fix of some smooth late 70s sounds. As both a fan of the music of bands like Hall and Oates and Steely Dan, as well as the parody web series that inspired the genre name, I was hoping to groove out to smooth music.

The set started out promising enough with the Doobie Brothers lamenting about “What a Fool Believes,” but just three songs later the same song came up again. Now, it’s a good track, but that kind of rotation makes even Top 40 radio seem diverse by comparison. Perhaps I’m not as big a fan of Yacht Rock as I thought, but I had to hit the skip button more than I would like, often because the same artist, like Christopher Cross, came up way too often. Within only about 30 minutes of listening I’d run out of allotted skips (which are limited in a say similar to Pandora or, as required by the DMCA).

The next station I tested out was 80s One (or Two) Hit Wonders. This station had a more extensive selection of tracks and I experienced no artist or song repetition over the course of an hour enjoying the likes of T’Pau, Night Ranger and Nina.

When I listened to this program in another session a couple weeks later several of the same songs came up again, but in a different sequence. Wall of Voodo’s “Mexican Radio” and Slade’s “Run Runaway,” turned up early in both sessions. The leads me to believe that these programs aren’t carefully crafted and sequenced playlists so much as a collection of tracks that are served up at random. That approach isn’t necessarily bad, but for me I’m finding that the overall number of tracks isn’t sufficiently high to maintain my interest in any given program for more than an hour total.

While listening the player app stays at the bottom of your browser window, allowing you to continue to navigate around the eMusic site. This lets you check out the artists, songs and albums you’re hearing, downloading something if the mood strikes you. However, if you leave the eMusic site, the music stops. But since you can leave the player running in a tab while browsing another tab or window this hardly seems like much of a limitation.

One thing I found annoying is that songs slowly fade in and fade out, which often means you miss a song’s intro and ending. This isn’t part of a crossfade, which would be understandable. So I can’t figure out why eMusic has decided to implement these fades, except that maybe they’re trying to avoid abrupt segues brought on by songs that end all-of-a-sudden or fade into another song on their album.

Another annoying aspect is that eMusic often forces me to re-login every time I switch stations, which really slows down the listening experience and serves as a disincentive for using the service.

eMusic only promises their radio service to work as in-browser on desktop computers. However, I was able to play it with no problem on my Android smartphone which supports Flash. The Flash-deprived iPhone was unable to play.

On the whole I find eMusic Radio to be a promising idea that has yet to live up to that promise. If I think of each “program” as something worth listening to for a single one-hour session, then it’s worthwhile. But unlike a well-used Pandora station, there’s too much repetition and not enough variety to entice me to listen to an eMusic program more than once.

Now, eMusic is periodically adding new stations to the mix, but the rate seems to be sporadic. A few new programs were added this past week after relative silence the previous ten days or so.

Another drawback is that it doesn’t seem like any additional variety is added to programs that were released weeks or months ago. To me, this combines the worst of commercial radio with the limitations of services like Pandora. I can think of many specialty internet radio shows that focus on a genre or style that manage to put out very unique and unrepetitive shows 52 weeks a year. I think it would be great to listen to the Hipster Heavy Metal Parking Lot program and get some new stuff every week, but that’s not how eMusic’s version of radio works.

eMusic does explicitly mark its radio sevice as “beta,” which may indicate that they intend to continue refining the service… or kill it off altogether. Perhaps that’s a way to lower listeners’ expectations?

Unlimited listening to eMusic Radio is free for current subscribers. Non-subscribers can sign up for a 10-hour free trial. Given there are 62 programs right now, there’s definitely more than 10 hours of listening to be had.

As a perk for eMusic subscribers their radio service is nice, but not essential. It’s certainly not something that would motivate me to become or stay a subscriber all on its own. There’s plenty of better free internet radio to be had.

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