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Unlimited downloads come with a 'guideline'

August 24, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

A lively debate has been taking place among users of the EMusic digital download service over the meaning of the word "unlimited."

The subscription service advertises unlimited downloads from its catalog of more than 250,000 tracks, which users can listen to on their computers or portable devices or burn onto CDs. But some users have received notices that they have abused the access, suggesting that 2,000 tracks a month is a reasonable number and that further use would result in termination of the account.

"We do not have a hard cap of 2,000 tracks," says EMusic General Manager Steve Grady. "We have a number of different parameters of what people are doing on our site and in what time frame, and certain people jump out and we do send warning letters. We do give 2,000 as a guideline."

One person on the site's discussion board calculated that 2,000 tracks a month is equal to about six hours of music a day, which Grady says is more than anyone could reasonably process for personal use. .

Whatever it means, exactly, the concept of unlimited use for one fee is what sets EMusic apart from other high-profile services. Apple's iTunes charges 99 cents per track, with comparable approaches used at and expected from America Online. Real Music's Rhapsody (which is debuting the Rolling Stones' new download offerings) and Pressplay (soon to be relaunched as the new Napster) offer subscriptions for unlimited ability to store tracks on a computer, but both charge an extra 99 cents per track to burn to CDs.

EMusic, which claims 70,000 subscribers and is owned by Vivendi Universal, charges its users fees of $9.99 a month for a year or $14.99 a month for three months, with no added cost for burning or transferring tracks to other media. But while that's certainly attractive from a consumer perspective, is it good business for the company and the labels and artists working with it?

"We're still experimenting with the model," Grady says. "Still trying to understand what does make sense and how does everybody win. The only way this makes sense is if the labels, publishers and the Web services all can make a margin sufficient to sustain their business. We're trying to find that balance."

What EMusic does not have in its balance are any major labels, which seem to have rejected the pure subscription format. But it does have more than 900 independents, including such "major" indies as Epitaph, Vagrant, Matador and Beggars Banquet as well as the deep jazz, blues, folk and classical catalogs of Fantasy, Koch and Shanachie. Artists in the mix include Tom Waits, Rancid, Pennywise, the Hives, Belle & Sebastian, the Pixies, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pavement, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and thousands more.

"We've been with them from the beginning," says Bob Frank, president of Koch Entertainment. "It works for us. A lot of the esoteric music, the jazz titles, the classical title, folk titles that aren't selling a lot at retail are receiving a lot of downloads. Any money generated by EMusic for us is found money. There is no downside for us."

EBay sales fund David J. album

Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. But Goth music icons who auction pieces of their history on EBay get to have a future.

That's the creative financing philosophy of David J. The former member of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets is about to release a new album, "Estranged," financed entirely through eBay sales of his Bauhaus memorabilia.

"I wanted to make a solo record but had no record company or financing and didn't want to commit to any company, wanted to be independent," he says. "I had one of those light bulb moments -- 'I've got all this stuff in my garage and I could hawk it on eBay.' "

Set lists, album sales awards, guitars, stage clothing and many other items were sold. J says his favorite might have been a candelabrum given to him by a fan in Mexico City that he used as a stage prop during the band's 1998 reunion tour. And every fan who purchased an item will be thanked by name on the new album's cover. J. wouldn't disclose the amount of his take but said it was "enough to pay for the whole record and master it."

J, who's also working on a new instrumental collaboration, "Desierto," with members of Tijuana's Nortec Collective, recommends the auction route to any independent artist who has built up a storehouse of mementos. But now he's looking for new ways to bankroll his coming tour.

"We're thinking of seeing if we could get sponsorship from eBay for the tour, though we haven't approached them yet," he says. "Then we'd have auctions of items during the tour."

Small faces

* Highlights from the last shows ever performed by Rage Against the Machine will be released in CD and DVD packages on Nov. 18 . "Live at the Olympic Auditorium" was recorded and filmed at two September 2000 shows at the Los Angeles facility, shortly before singer Zack de la Rocha split to focus on a still-unreleased solo album. The discs will be released both separately and in a combo pack in which the DVD will include some different songs from the one released on its own.

* Avril Lavigne and fellow Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk have teamed for a duet on "O Holy Night" for "Maybe This Christmas, Too," a holiday collection due Nov. 4 from Nettwerk Records benefiting Toys for Tots. Other artists contributing exclusive songs include Guster, Rufus Wainwright, Polyphonic Spree and Rilo Kiley, with rare holiday-oriented songs from the Used and the Flaming Lips.

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