Belief in Nothing, Key Chains, and eMusic

An online music retailer changes its system.

"I'm not an innovation freak on the delivery side," Sub Pop chief Jonathan Poneman told me recently via e-mail. "Content remains my principal interest." The problems afflicting the music business haven't been about content, but delivery. And for more than a decade, a cottage industry of startups and ideas—some good ones coming out of the Sub Pop offices—have emerged in an attempt to adequately monetize recorded music through some form of delivery that's better than free and is not wrapped in cellophane. Seattle's and iTunes have been selling mp3s to customers convinced that they own mp3s in the same way they own that Fleetwood Mac box and those Jim Croce LPs in the basement. Seattle's Rhapsody and its horde of competitors in the music-streaming subscription business lease music to customers who care more about having unlimited access to millions of songs than owning a few of them. And for folks somewhere in the middle—still wedded to the idea of ownership but willing to pay a monthly fee for music at a discount—there has been eMusic. The genius of eMusic is that it allowed customers to experience the mirage of ownership that iTunes provides, but at a steep discount. In 2004, you could spend as little as $10 a month for 40 tracks—a steal compared to 99 cents a pop on iTunes. The catch? The major labels weren't playing ball. The upside? Most of the indies were, and fans of Arcade Fire, Neko Case, and Cold War Kids flocked to the site. But as eMusic courted the Michael Jacksons and Rolling Stones of the world, the monthly fees got higher and the musical compensation to customers became less generous. When eMusic announced in November that it had secured another massive influx of major-label tunes, courtesy of Sony and Warner, it also started charging subscribers 49 to 89 cents per track, deducted from their monthly subscription fee, which now operates more like a purse. The gravy train is over. Some of the site's indie core balked and pulled their catalogues. But Sub Pop is sticking with eMusic. "I appreciate why the other labels bailed; eMusic's model is fundamentally changing," Poneman says. "We chose to give the new model a chance." The most intriguing model Sub Pop has flirted with is the idea of pairing their mp3 business with something tangible. Last summer, Sub Pop general manager Megan Jasper told SW that "we're considering flipping our strategy so that people pay for the toy and receive the music for free. Just a thought." Asked if the label was ready to put the idea into action, Poneman replied, "I was going to offer you an original pressing of 'Love Buzz' b/w 'Big Cheese' by Nirvana, but I have this key chain for you instead . . . " Funny, but also fantastically romantic. Sub Pop has been selling things less tangible and memorable than key chains—mp3s—for years. Key chains aren't going to replace vinyl, but attaching a real-world representation—such as a poster or booklet—to a digital purchase is a most intriguing rabbit hole to explore. When we talk about digital music, we're talking about nothing. We're talking about digital files that sit on a hard drive and are easier to lose than Canadian pennies, and when we lose them—as we inevitably do, faster than any previous medium—we're left with nothing. Even a key chain is better than nothing.

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