Too much choice can be paralyzing

Three months ago, I signed up for eMusic.

Although iTunes is the 800-pound gorilla in music downloads, the DRM pretty much keeps away. eMusic sells MP3s, and the subscription model sounds like a good deal. For the price of mid-line CD, I could get about four albums’ worth of music.

I’ve taken to using eMusic as a paid preview service — rather than buy a CD, I’ll download it from eMusic first, then see how attached I get to it. It’s resulted in a number of purchases since I’ve signed up.

I’m subscribed to the most basic service, which is 40 files a month for $9.99. In the first few weeks of using the service, I put a lot of stuff in my "Save for Later" queue, thinking the moment my download quota refreshes, I’ll eat it up right away.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way.

The subtext of eMusic is easy, immediate access to music for cheap. You’re not restricted by the inventory of a store at the moment of your visit or by the delivery schedule of the post office on a particular day. The kid in the candy store analogy is apropos — if indie is your jones, eMusic just might have your fix. (Like a store, eMusic is still subject to the whims of its suppliers.)

But sometimes too much choice is overwhelming.

Since I’m limited to 40 downloads a month, I have to prioritize. Blow my entire allowance on the back catalog of a single band? Split the allowance between a 20-track classical disc and two 10-track indie rock records? Dedicate part of the allowance to stuff so new the Pitchfork sycophants would overlook it? Maybe look up catalog items that I had to overlook the first time?

It’s like a typical trip to the music store — I have X number of dollars, how can I spend it wisely?

The difference is the eMusic dollars are already spent. $9.99 is going to be charged to my credit card regardless, so it’s a matter of use it or lose it. I guess I understand how government works now.

eMusic does offer tiered plans, the most expensive offers 90 downloads for $19.99. But it’s still a pie, and it still needs to be divvyed.

As a result, I’ve noticed I would put off using up my quota till just a few days before it would refresh. Now, I’m beginning to notice another issue — how will I budget the time to listen to eMusic downloads in addition to the stuff I get myself from other sources, legitimate or no?

This past month has been challenging for me because I’m working on my own stuff, and I’m listening to that more than I am listening to other people’s music.

Since unused eMusic downloads don’t accrue, going a month without downloading a single file is $9.99 in eMusic’s pocket and zero files on my hard drive. I’m put in the position to acquire, acquire, acquire, and I may not have the luxury to consume, consume, consume.

All that to say the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just because I have access to 40 files a month doesn’t mean I know what those files are going to be till I know my mood. Something I wanted a month ago may not seem like priority today.

And when faced with too much choice, it’s always easiest not to choose.

Yesterday I grabbed from eMusic albums by the Gossip, Chris Butler (from the Waitresses), Eluvium and the Hedwig and the Angry Inch soundtrack. I also bought Robin Holcomb’s first disc for Tzadik at a record store. In the past two weeks, I received new albums by Utada Hikaru and Cocco in the mail.

I don’t know where to begin.