Saturday, June 09, 2007

Pink Martini released their new CD, Hey Eugene! on May 14th. I was, of course, quite eager to give it a listen, but having trouble finding the CD for much below $15. Which I would gladly pay, but knowing the album is $9.99 on iTunes, I didn't want to pay that much of a premium to get the album in a non-optimal format (I'd much rather download music than rip it from CDs, though Pink Martini is one of those increasingly rare instances when I would have liked to have something physical to embrace). And iTunes has yet to roll out iTunes Plus for indie record labels, so Hey Eugene! still comes with DRM. And knowing that it would most likely be available in the future without DRM for the same price, I decided I could wait. After all, I'd heard many of the songs performed live.

But after a little bit of searching, I discovered the album was available now, sans DRM, from mTraks, a new digital music store based right here in San Diego. The album was available for $9.99, or for the same price, you could subscribe, and get 30 download credits. As there was no commitment, I went ahead and subscribed, downloaded the album, and still had 18 credits available, for 18 more songs. I got the new Pink Martini album at an amazing price, and had a chance to try out a new DRM-free music store, so I could report on my experience here.

My judgment: mTraks could be a useful service in the future, but right now, I'd say it lacks any edge over the competition. The website isn't particularly easy to browse, and despite their supposed emphasis on community features, musical recommendations were essentially non-existent. Searching for specific artists is easier, but I was annoyed by "false positives," when an artist turns up in a search, yet further clicking reveals they are not available on the service. But without strong community features, finding artists any way other than direct searching is futile. The community aspect may improve when they have more users, but gaining that user base may be difficult when eMusic has them beat on pretty much every point. They may have an advantage in their hybrid model, as they sell individual tracks and albums as well as subscriptions, but with a subscription available for the price of an album, I assume most people will do what I do, subscribe, download, and cancel. Now, if they can offer a compelling reason not to cancel (I was open-minded), this might be an effective and less costly way of attracting customers than eMusic's free trials (which have led to allegations of creative accounting). But from what I've experienced, I see no incentive to stick around. The next time there's an indie album I would like, that's not on eMusic, I might check out mTraks. But I don't see myself becoming a regular customer.

But hey, it's a beta, things could improve. But given the singular lack of buzz, I don't give this one a huge chance of success. A Google blog search on "mTraks" only gets 119 hits. Half of these hits are variations on mTraks' press release (excluding the perfectly natural and not-at-all-PR-talk phrase "killer social music community" brings the hits down to 60), and I haven't really been able to find any blog posts with paying customers discussing their experiences. And I'm afraid this post won't win them any awards.

Which wasn't really my intention. I didn't set out to bash mTraks, just discuss my experience (actually, I intended to discuss the new Pink Martini album, but I've digressed enough that I think I'll save that for another post). If you're looking for something eMusic doesn't have and mTraks does, mTraks is probably your best bet for buying said product. And if you're into the music released by the labels that created mTraks, Cafeteria Records and Naked Jain records, which I believe focus on punk music (feel free to correct me on that), then you should have no trouble finding music here. But in its current beta state, their press release's claim of being a "killer social music community" isn't backed up, and I see no reason not to stick with eMusic.

And a final note: What the hell is this? It's the first page that comes up on Google Blog Search when searching for mTraks. It's the mTraks press release, but with a byline and author bio, clearly trying to fool someone into thinking it's a news story, not a press release. How does this work? Did mTraks pay them to promote their press release in this misleading manner, or does this California Newswire site just reprint press releases to develop cheap content and sell ads? I call shenanigans on whoever's responsible. Oh, and now I see the second hit is a link to another website in the same family, same text, but now, instead of Cindy Holden, the author (excuse me, the site explains the name is the "editor/author") has become Jesse JJ Jame. How about that? I'm guessing from the Neotrope Interactive Network's home page that this is just some lame promotional tool for companies that can't generate real buzz. The desperation doesn't bode well for mTraks' chances.

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