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Why streaming music services matter

Christopher Breen | May 12, 2014
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.

For many of us, the next logical step was to wonder what it might be like if we had browsing rights to that store. Just walk in and, for a reasonable monthly fee, put on anything you like (and download a copy to your devices). This is what I appreciate about music subscription services. It satisfies the 17-year-old within who would have loved to have an after-hours pass to Tower Records.

When choice is a burden

Miraculous as access to millions of tracks is, it doesn't take long before you're overwhelmed by choices. If you can listen to absolutely anything, where do you begin? I suspect that many people taking subscription services for a test drive head directly to the I Already Own This aisle. For many people, music is like comfort food. We tend to glom on to music that had/has an emotional impact on us and we like to revisit those emotions from time to time. But on repeated play, those emotions can get tamped down with familiarity. Enough of that and you get bored and leave.

The point of music subscription is that it broadens your musical horizons — it takes you somewhere outside the familiar yet still delivers the goods by introducing you to new music that evokes those same kinds of emotions. As long as you remain musically engaged, the more likely you are to cough up those monthly fees.

That's largely the idea behind Pandora (and, less successfully, iTunes Radio). But what about the larger services? All of them have tried — through channels, stations, and social networking schemes — but their bread-and-butter remains quantity rather than curation.

And then along came Beats Music. As I tried to point out in my first look at the service, Beats has approached the problem from a different angle. Rather than rely on algorithms, Beats has hired professional listeners — experts in particular musical genres. Their job is to not only know sometimes-obscure genres from front to back, but also to produce playlists that present the most appropriate work of a genre or artist or even an emotion. Done right, this begins to address the "What Do I Listen To Now?" issue. There remains room for algorithmic answers, but at its core Beats is real people listening to real music addressing real listeners' needs.

If you accept that there's room in this world for both ownership and subscription, curation is key. And currently, Beats Music has the edge.

Where from here?

I'm the last person on earth to comment on the valuation of services. While I think music streaming will become increasingly important in the future (and ownership less so), is paying $3.2 billion for Beats any less sane than Facebook dropping $19 billion on WhatsApp? Again, no clue. But I do see areas where Beats and Apple make sense together.


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