By Harry McCracken | Monday, May 18, 2009 at 5:31 pm
I’ve blogged before about subscription-based music services, an idea that the tech industry has poured millions into, and which rationally makes sense–but which has never caught on with teeming masses of consumers. Today, Napster–which is part of Best Buy these days–is trying again, with a new plan that offers unlimited streaming and five MP3 downloads a month–for $5. It’s not quite a return to the original Napster’s “pricing plan”–all the MP3s you could steal for $0 a month–but it’s a vast quantity of music for very little money.
Naspter’s closest competitor, Rhapsody, charges $12.99 a month for a similar streaming plan that doesn’t include the MP3 downloads; there’s a good chance, presmably, that it will be forced to match Napster’s price. (Both companies still charge a relatively-hefty $14.99 a month for plans that let you download unlimited music to an audio player or phone.) Apple, meanwhile, will likely continue to offer only pay-per-song downloads–and will continue to utterly dominate digital music.
I don’t know the economics behind Napster’s new pricing model, but perhaps Best Buy hopes that all those $5 subscribers will be more likely to do their buying of DRM-free downloads from Napster than from another online merchant. Or perhaps it’s just thinking about the day (coming soon!) when all those CD sections in Best Buy stores go away, and thinking that it’s worthwhile to maintain some relationship with music fans, profit or no profit.
Five bucks a month isn’t free, but it’s close enough that it pretty much removes the cost factor from the question of whether subscription music has any appeal to the masses or not. If you aren’t willing to plunk down $5, you most likely won’t be more interested at $4, $3, $2, or a buck. It’ll be fascinating to see if the new pricing makes a difference–as a lover of competition and low prices, I hope it does, but I make no predictions.
Me, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’m still as likely to buy a CD as to download tracks. (Okay, not that embarrassed, but the time is coming when purchasing CDs will be as much of a nerdy affectation as collecting vinyl is today. I once subscribed to Napster but let my service lapse years ago; maybe now’s a good time to give it another chance.