Around the office I'm known (among other things) as the Guy Who Won't Shut Up About Music Subscription Services. Since the mid-2000s I've cheerfully pungled up my monthly subscription fees for such services as Rhapsody, Napster, Spotify, Rdio, Mog, Pandora, Slacker, and, most recently, Beats Music. And, with a little less cheer, my colleagues (and some readers) have cocked a curious eye and inquired, "Why would you rent your music rather than own it?" With rumors circulating that Apple is talking to Beats Music about a change of ownership — and given that Beats happens to be my current favorite among the subscription services — I thought it time to revisit the topic.
The times, they are a-changin'
The point of a music subscription is to allow you to listen to any music ever recorded, available wherever you are. This music floats in the ether and whether through computer, AV component, automobile, or mobile device, you have the ability to turn on the tap and push that music into your waiting ears. Yet for years the idea has been discounted. And who better to discount any idea than Steve Jobs?
In 2003, Apple's CEO had this to say about subscription services:
Well, they've failed. They've completely failed. Nobody wants to rent their music. They have hardly any subscribers.
But the digital landscape has changed since then. Subscription media streaming has become a far more acceptable notion thanks to video services such as Netflix and Hulu, as many people now "rent" their access to movies and TV shows. Pandora remains a popular music streaming service (though more people take advantage of the free plan rather than pay for it). And when Spotify finally emigrated to the U.S., many stopped heaping scorn on music subscriptions and tuned in to try it. Some liked what they heard.
An additional factor that has made streaming services more attractive can be laid firmly at Apple's doorstep — the devaluation of the album as listening unit. Back in the day, if a band had one or two hits on the radio you sprung for the 14-song LP rather than the 45. The audio CD did nothing to change this: You simply paid more for your music.
Then the iTunes Store came along and popularized the playlist. Rather than being stuck with weak material necessary to fill out an album, you could purchase just those songs you wanted and arrange them in an order of your choosing. Listening to an artist's "work" from beginning to end — particularly among younger listeners — became the exception, not the norm. And to put issues of limited shelf space aside and shop for your singles at the largest virtual record store on earth? Amazing.
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