Quarter Life Crisis

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Rented Music

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There’s been quite a bit of writing about some upcoming online music services which offer you a subscription for which you can listen to any of their songs… but only as long as you pay the subscription fee. To make this ‘work’ you’ll need some more advanced (i.e. limiting) DRM on your computer and your mobile players. As an additional disadvantage, you’ll have to pay significant amounts of money if you actually want to burn a song. John Gruber goes through the details and discusses the pitfalls exhaustively and nicely.

And even with that in mind, being a person who likes to spend money for music, the sheer maths look interesting at first. I always end up spending more than €15 per month on music. That’s basically the price of a single album. And with tons of new stuff appearing all the time and a couple of decades of back catalogues to catch up with, that’s almost nothing. So this could be a good deal, couldn’t it?

And, along with all the others I’ll have answer, that no, not even in the case of someone who spends a lot of money on music, it doesn’t look like a good option. The first, reason for this is that – while I hope it doesn’t – it may just happen that I cease to be interested in music that much, I’ll buy a few jazz records in my thirties like my parents did, and that was that. In that situation a subscription that’s good today will be bad value but I’ll most likely keep it, just as most people’s parents or grandparents were reluctant to simply throw away their old records. So, in the long term it may be bad deal.

Secondly, all this, because it’s tied to some DRM software, absolutely relies on that very software remaining available for a few decades. And for it to keep on running on future hardware. So the decision of investing in a subscription today may, in the worst case, tie you to a certain computing and audio platform for the rest of your life. Nobody is able to predict in which direction technology and trends will move in such a long time frame. So I’d be extremely reluctant to bet my music collection on it.

Thirdly, and this shouldn’t be underestimated, most notably because it’s an effect that can be felt today: Most people who are listening to a lot of music and who would benefit from such a service financially are also the people who quite like to ‘collect’ music. People who like to look at proper cover art. People who like to show their friends around their own record collection. And people who like to have a sense of owning their music and discovering their bands. Many of these aspects are very easily available with physical media. And they’re quickly lost once you switch to digital music. I think one of the key advantages of iTunes back when it appeared was that it went along those lines: In iTunes you can still have your collection, organise it in a couple of different ways and browse it. That may not be the end of the development, but I can’t see how you can get much further in absence of physical media.

Using iTunes to look around your own albums and making a compilation CD for a friend is one thing but using iTunes on a friend’s computer – or over a network even – to browse through his records is just so far from looking along a record shelf. It’s just a scrolling list in a computer after all. And looking along those is mostly boring.

But this is a digression, I guess, so let me return to the initial topic of just subscribing to listen the music without owning any of it. The problem I see there is that as it will be free to add any album to your collection, you’ll be easily convinced to do just that. And after a few years you’ll have tons and tons of songs which you won’t know and perhaps never even listened to. Your collection will be a mess because you don’t know your way around it very well. It won’t actually feel like it’s yours. So, in a way, having to pay for music may mean that you value it more and choose the albums which you buy more carefully. And that may be a good thing.

February 10, 2005, 19:03

Tagged as music.


Comment by Tom Insam: User icon

A small point, but I disagree with the ‘tied to one platform forever’ angle - surely a subscription service gives you much more flexibility from a platform pov, I can always just subscribe to some other platform, whatever (assuming, of course, that there are other platforms, but that’s not really the point), wheras buying music from the iTMS is tying you down to this platform forever…

February 11, 2005, 0:42

Comment by ssp: User icon

You’re probably right there. It seems like I got carried away in worst-case scenarios. I.e. cases where you can in principle switch services but it will be a huge hassle because not every service will carry all the songs and you may have to recompile you whole collection manually.

This may be an overly pessimistic point of view as the service that you move to will have in interest in offering you tools to automatically migrate your collection &c.

As far as the DRM cr ap and tying down is concerned I agree with your point about iTMS. However, contrary to the subscription services, iTMS lets you burn your music to an ordinary audio CD and thus preserve it for the long term. I’m not a big iTMS customer anyway, but without that, I may not have bought anything with them.

February 11, 2005, 11:23

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