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EMI Taking New Digital Approach?

emi music storeIn the 2007 movie August Rush, the title character says “The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen.”  That’s especially true online.  From iTunes to Amazon, from Pandora to Slacker, from Facebook to MySpace and imeem, the songbooks and song vendors border on ubiquity.  You can buy a DRM-Free download or tune in to a free stream; you can catch a new single or embed a sample as soundtrack to your personal corner of the web.  And in case that’s not enough, if those options don’t overwhelm, now there will be another.  The Financial Times reported Wednesday that EMI, the smallest of the world’s Big Four music labels, is preparing to launch a digital music portal of their own in time for the holidays.

Few details have been released but the FT reports the service will offer both audio and video content, some paid and some free. 

The first reaction is to ask what exactly is it: a music store, a portal, a community, a marketing tool? The second question, if retail is a prominent part, is why: “what’s the point?” Already, consumers have more choices than they need and another store seems destined to be lost in the noise. 

Given the unknowns, a quiet voice of reason says reserve judgment, wait for the facts.

EMI has a history of taking pioneering first steps.  In 1998, they streamed Massive Attack’s Mezzanine over the internet.  They were the first company to stream an entire album.  In 1999, they were the first major label to make an entire album available as downloadable content.  In 2007, the company led the push for offering DRM-Free content, signing deals with Apple, Amazon and Wal-Mart.

Since being privatized by Terra Firma last year, EMI has hired two experienced Internet entrepreneurs to lead their digital efforts.  Doug Merrill, who heads the group as “president, digital business,” was previously Google’s CIO.  Cory Ondrejka, senior VP digital strategy, was a co-founder of Second Life creator Linden Lab.

When Ondrejka joined EMI, he said in a statement that he was lured by the “rare opportunity to influence digital music industry, by helping artists reach their fans in more relevant ways and by allowing fans to find and acquire music through new business models.”

If what EMI is preparing to launch is merely another music store, or a small scale portal/community to give EMI artists more visibility han Merrill and Ondrejka aren’t living up to their promises.  They are more than informed enough to know there is little demand from the market for a narrow-catalog, single-label store.  They also have to be aware that prior, similar efforts to offer the songs of just one label struggled; their lack of content diversity, compared to the buffet of choices at an  iTunes or Amazon, a crippling Achilles Heel.  

It’s hard to believe that what EMI is doing doesn’t have a grander ambition. Even as a laboratory for trying to figure out how to capture the rhythm and flow of digital dollars, the story seems incomplete.  There must be more to it and until the details are revealed, it seems premature to draw a conclusion.

EMI’s diverse catalog includes music from artists ranging in style and era from The Beatles to Bonnie Raitt to the Gorrilaz to Wynton Marsalis, Norah Jones and Keith Urban.

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