How To Mismanage Your Community The EMusic Way


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Since 2005, I’ve been a loyal member of eMusic, a monthly music subscription service. What initially attracted me to eMusic was their terrific catalog of DRM-free indie music from bands like Mogwai, Mates of State, Spoon, and Pretty Girls Make Graves. And the subscription rate was a great value.

However, in the past couple of years, eMusic clearly started to shift its emphasis toward competing with iTunes. They started to bring in more major labels and subtly raised the subscription fees. At first it sounded like a good idea…who wouldn’t want to have access to some White Stripes and Foo Fighters along with their New Pornographers and Metric? But as eMusic transitioned, the member forums started to show signs of discontent. Then last month eMusic completed a deal with Universal Music Group to add several thousand new tracks from mainstream artists. That’s when things took a turn toward the ugly side.

Nowhere has the ugly become more obvious than on eMusic’s member forums. Here are five things eMusic is doing that you can’t afford to do if you want a thriving member community:

1. Not address issues raised by members
You don’t have to dig very far to see just how pissed members are with eMusic. Here’s a sample of post titles from the forums:

  • Have credit, can’t download; lousy customer service
  • Well, it ain’t an improved service we’re paying for…
  • Goodbye emusic
  • Money taken but no credit.
  • How to destroy customer loyalty

Want to know how many times a rep from eMusic responded to these particular posts? Zip. Zero. Zilch. Review the forum and you’ll see that most of the interaction is members consoling other members and lamenting how things have changed for the worse. When it comes to actually addressing the issues raised by members, eMusic most often chooses the silent but deadly route.

Here’s a better way: Hopefully, it’s crystal clear. Deal with your members’ issues as openly and quickly as possible. Yes, sometimes an instant response isn’t the appropriate thing to do (particularly where investigation or research is necessary), but people will tolerate bad news a lot better when they’re treated like intelligent adults.

2. Speak mainly in PR-ese
When someone from eMusic does bother to communicate with members, its usually their VP of Corporate Communications, Cathy Nevins. I don’t know Ms. Nevins but what I can tell by her background and her interactions on the forums is that she clearly doesn’t understand the differences of PR, customer service, and community management. Find any post or response she writes and it oozes with PR-ese, rarely addressing the actual issue and sometimes providing misinformation. Case in point is this question regarding a change in service: After Cathy does offer a response, notice how many subscribers call her out on offering a less-than-truthful explanation. There’s also an interesting related conversation going on at non-affiliated

Here’s a better way: Talk to your members like they’re people you give a damn about. Be specific as often as possible. Apologize for screwing up. If you feel the overwhelming urge to spin and micromanage a situation, you need to nip that in the bud. Communities of passionate members are built around relationships of respect and honesty. PR-ese isn’t part of that equation.

3. Allow VPs to run the community
I hope my criticism of Ms. Nevins isn’t seen as personal. It’s not. (In some ways, I do feel bad for her. It’s horribly apparent that she’s in way over her head, perhaps even close to burnout.) But what I find curious is that eMusic puts the responsibility of interacting with paying members in the hands of a VP whose background is public relations. Know what this tells me? That eMusic executive management doesn’t really know what the hell it’s doing, and definitely doesn’t know how to maintain an online community.

Want further proof that this company has a deaf ear toward online interaction? All posts at eMusic’s blog, 17 dots, written by their CEO, Adam Klein, have the comment function disabled (though notice all other posts have no problems with comments). And yet more proof is on their Twitter account where they mostly RT and respond to positive tweets, but ignore respectfully critical questions, issues, and comments.

If eMusic really understood the importance of a positive, thriving community, they’d realize that talking with their members – even if they are pissed off members – would help. It would also be a good idea to hire a community manager immediately who knew how to communicate openly with people, listen with empathy, and calm tensions by providing needed information (on the other hand, the lack of a true community manager and the impact on eMusic’s member satisfaction isn’t a new issue).

Here’s a better way: Nothing against VPs or execs managing communities, but often they’re not in the right place to do it well. It’s vital to maintain their buy-in and keep them involved when necessary. However, managing a community is work that takes focus and a wide variety of skillsets. If your online community is foundering, hire an experienced community management professional.

4. Allow critical issues to escalate
By not immediately and adequately dealing with those tensions expressed by members who felt cheated and ignored, eMusic lost their shot at quelling the criticism. These issues didn’t just arise overnight…they were slowly percolating over the last several months. One could almost argue it started last summer during a particularly significant subscription rate hike when eMusic added Sony to their catalog.

Here’s a better way: It’s a no-brainer but it’s so easy to let problems snowball until they turn into full out avalanches. Then, it takes a herculean effort to dig your company out of the pileup. Don’t let the avalanche occur. Build an issue escalation plan that includes a clearly defined process for what to do when a significant issue arises within the community. Know who will handle the situation, the timeframe for handling it, and the various communication points for response.

5. Treat your longtime members with lack of respect
For what it’s worth, I’m probably leaving eMusic after five years of membership. I can’t say how much I appreciate what eMusic did to expand my musical horizons. But like many members who’ve been with the service for years, I’ve hit my breaking point. It finally came when indie labels like Matador exposed eMusic’s new terms that seem to benefit the big media conglomerates over the companies that made eMusic great once upon a time.

One of the most reasoned responses came from fellow longtime member EVDebs:

Much of the anger expressed at 17dots and elsewhere flows from the rampant dishonesty that has marked emusic’s communication strategy regarding this price increase and the seeming contempt with which you have treated your longtime subscribers. You have made it much, much harder for yourselves to make a convincing argument that this price increase was anything but a result of your questionable decision to focus on bringing major labels on board. The problem with any strategy built on lies is that even the truth ends up sounding like a lie once everyone has caught on to the fact that you’ve been lying.

Here’s a better way: Your longtime members are the ones who likely saw your community through the tough times and probably evangelized your brand to spread the good word-of-mouth. Why in the world would you kick them to the curb, even if the focus of your community changes? Don’t be arrogant enough to think you can just go and get more members like they grow on some kind of magical tree. Instead of pushing them further away, draw them closer to your community and business. They contributed to your success. Thank them accordingly.

image credit: Crawdaddy! Magazine

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Chris Bailey
Marketing and Customer Experience Designer at Bailey WorkPlay. Chris's extensive experience in marketing, consumer behavior, social science, communications, and social media helps nearly any type of business connect with its customers.


  1. Chris,

    With all the happy talk flying around about the wonders of social media, your post is a wake-up call that communities take the right skills and focus to work well.

    One would hope that the leadership of eMusic would pay attention and use this as an opportunity to learn from loyal subscribers… before they leave.


  2. Thanks for adding your thoughts, Bob. I also think that another lesson here is that sometimes consumer communities arise outside of the intentions of the business. For instance, IKEA has a huge consumer community of fans who just love IKEA and their brand. IKEA FANS isn’t affiliated with the company at all, yet this group continues to power a passion for all things IKEA.

    I think it’s the same for eMusic. Whether they like it or not, there is a community there and also at The fact that they don’t bother to cultivate these user groups points to either a lack of understanding or simple lack of interest. My guess is as long as enough new members come through the door to offset the number of older members leaving, then its a cold, rational business decision to keep on their present course. But is that strategy sustainable?


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