Please, World, Like Subscription Music, Won’t You?

By  |  Friday, February 6, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Over at CNet, Greg Sandoval has a good story up on subscription music services such as the one that Microsoft offers for its Zune devices. They were supposed to be a big deal, but the idea never spawned any breakout hits. Yahoo and others exited the business, Rhapsody and Napster are niche successes at best, and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see Microsoft say bye-bye to it at some point as well. Meanwhile, Apple has sold billions of non-subscription, buy-it-and-own-it song downloads. Yet Greg’s story says that Microsoft and the music industry are still insisting that subscribing to music is a model that makes sense.

Rationally, subscription music seems like it makes sense: It lets you spend $15 to get access to unlimited music, versus spending the same amount or thereabouts to buy one album. But consumers are simply nowhere near as interested as the industry thinks they should be. Greg mentions one factor in his story: The fact that people appear to want to own their music rather than renting it. I think another big factor is copy protection. It’s neatly mandatory for subscription music (eMusic is the only subscription service that doesn’t lock up its tracks). And even if you can live with the notion of DRM, the technologies that have been used to shackle subscription music have proven to be particularly flaky. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Windows Media.)

Another factor: Subscription music is difficult to explain. Especially the part about it going away if you stop subscribing. Buying music is a notion that we all get.

I still know smart people–including some journalists–who think subscription music will catch on eventually. Maybe it will. Right now, though, I think that its ongoing failure is proof that it doesn’t matter how theoretically logical an idea is if it fails to capture the imagination of consumers.


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20 Comments For This Post

  1. Jake Says:

    I can see two markets: one, people for whom the $15/month isn’t something to think about or budget for–IOW, who don’t have to choose between buying and subscribing but can have both. And two, teenagers who just want to be sure to have whatever’s hot with no thought to whether they’ll want to ever listen to it again 6 months from now. I’m not sure those two markets would ever add up to more than a niche, but I’d think they’d make a pretty solid niche. A bigger problem might be that the iPod doesn’t work with any of the subscription services.

  2. phil calzadilla Says:

    I think slacker radio and pandora will end the purchase/subscription side too. I routinely workout to slacker radio (via iphone) now versus listening to my ipod. I wish I bought the 8gb iPhone now since I am not really downloading songs any more! Well i guess I have room for movies… until a “hulu” or someone decides to offer movies too.

  3. Lacy Kemp Says:

    I actually do both subscription and purchasing. Before I ever used Rhapsody (I work for them now) I used iTunes and bought CDs (still buy CDs but no longer use iTunes on a regular basis). I find that if there is music that I simply must own then I will buy it. If it’s something I like but am not desperate to own then the subscription model is fantastic. I’m willing to spend a lot more on music than I do now, so I have no problem doing both the sub model and purchasing. For any sub doubters- it really is fantastic. You’re whole music world is opened up to an expansive…REALLY expansive library. Music discovery is certainly the best part of subscription. I will be a subscriber as long as the service exists. I can promise you that.

  4. Mark Green Says:

    I think Lala really has a good model with their hybrid + micropayment approach. You can listen to most songs once for free, add 50 songs to a list for unlimited listening at their website, add more for $.05 each, and buy any song for $.89 or so. Explore other people’s lists to find new music. I thought it sounded bad at first but I have bought songs there that I can’t find on eMusic. And I listen to music there from my list and other people’s lists. To me, it’s like the best of eMusic and iTunes. The only downside is that it keeps uploading my catalog from my hard drive (hey, get off that!).

    BTW, you list eMusic as a subscription service but I don’t think it qualifies as you describe it. You’re buying music from there (unprotected mp3s) but it’s a subscription model where you pay a set fee and get so many songs per month.

  5. JonathanPDX Says:

    So I spend $15 a month and have scads of music I can listen to until I quit paying, then I have nothing to show for it but fond memories (unless I want to pay even more to keep it)? Or pay $.99 a song to get exactly what I want and get to keep it and it’s (theoretically) available whenever I want it forevermore. Hmmm.

    I guess I’m just not that desperate to rent music, especially if it requires me to have a specific player/device to listen to it. For me, album buying is a thing of the past. I buy the songs I like and pass on the ones I don’t.

    I’ve already said goodbye to Cable & DirecTV because of lousy programming and having to live by their schedules. To me, music is just too personal to rent.

  6. Ozzie Wallace Says:

    I do not think a subscrption model will work because music is a personnel experience. I have a friend that has music on all formats. He still buys records and cds every week. He has also just start buying albums off of iTunes.

    Also, ownership is still important to me. I feel special when I know I own an album that I feel is a classic. I buy whole albums off of iTunes because I feel I get a better deal. Even if the industry experts think their new model is better.

    Last, when I buy an album from iTunes I look at it this way, if an artist album has 16 songs on it and I spend 9.99 for it. It cost me .62 cents per song. That is a better deal than buying one song for .99 cents feel.

  7. Vulpine Says:

    Ok, some of you have good reasons; others don’t. I,personally, can’t understand why anyone would WANT to use a subscription service for what is effectively paying for free radio. I’ll grant I pay for satellite radio, but that’s because I get to listen to things I wouldn’t normally hear from ground-based radio stations without having to worry about getting out of range. But when it comes to my music, I would much rather own it so that I can listen to what I want, when I want, without having to worry about having to pay for it… again!

    My iTunes library consists of over 13,000 track, clips, movies and podcasts. That’s over 38days worth of viewing and listening pleasure and a huge proportion of that has come direct from vinyl or CD. I can listen to anything from Kraftwerk to U2 to the Black-Eyed Peas to Al Yankovik any time, any where… and I don’t have to pay a single penny over what I’ve already spent for it.

    Why would I want to waste my money?

  8. Josh Rose Says:

    I have subscribed to eMusic for years, and although it’s not really an ala carte service (like the Zune subscription), I was initially drawn in by the DRM-free policy, and stayed because of the indy label selection. I think they are absolutely unique in their model: a monthly subscription fee where you get X number of downloads each month (one download=one track of any length…so one classical track that is 20 minutes long is only one download used). Having said that, I also have a Zune and if I weren’t already committed to eMusic, they would have sold me on their new Zune Subscription with the 10 keepable downloads per month – that seems like a winning combination to the pros and cons presented here by everyone.

  9. Sal Romano Says:

    I am really happy with my Zune pass subscription. I really have no desire to actually own music files (or DVDs for that matter). The thought of paying .99 a track for something sounds juvenile. I guess if you are a teenager something like purchase might appeal to you. But $15 a month is really not a lot of money. I spend more on lunch each day.

  10. Dan Hall Says:

    At the end of the day, music subscription makes sense. ¬£15 for an unlimited library, when they inevitably bundle in wireless streaming then there is literally no downside (for the consumer). For those who points out that you lose your library when you stop subscribing, it should equally be noted that you get it all back as soon as you re-subscribe. Now this is the problem. The labels clearly saw this model as their future, they imagined a world in which everyone would subscribe and forget the old business model. Had apple signed up for unlimited downloads, then maybe it would have succeeded. But it has now flopped. Thus; people no longer envisage themselves subscribing for a long term period and therefore see the stop subscribing, loose the music as a deal breaker. Had subscription been better implemented and advertised originally this would have not been an issue and i imagine that subscription music is on the way out… unless apple has a change of heart (not gonna happen).

    Now i spend a lot on iTunes and CD’s but used to use Napster and admit that the only thing that stopped my subscription was iPod incompatibility. The music industry is WELL aware of this. If you look at compatible players, a large percentage of people also have subscription accounts, which convinces them that if Apple did support the model it would be a lot more successful. Their last hope is Nokia, and after a painfully bad advertisement launch, this could also fail.

    However. Is music subscription healthy? I can see why Apple rejects it. I think it kinda shows the labels admitting their product is worthless and disposable and could be damaging in the long term. Apple’s road to recovery is much longer for them, but is finally starting to bear big and healthy fruits for them…. in five years they might be pretty happy Steve Jobs told them to get off.

  11. Vulpine Says:

    It seems that in at least two cases since my previous post, the commenter believes that their particular subscription service will continue forever, even after the author of this blog stated that at least one of them was considering folding.

    At that rate, if your subscription expires (whether you want it to or not,) you’ve lost your money and have next to nothing to show for it. It’s happened before and it will happen again. How about learning from history, for once?

    I don’t fault subscription services for what they are, I fault them for what they aren’t. With something like the iTMS, you at least get to keep the music you have even if Apple closed its doors tomorrow; with a subscription, you’re subject to the whims of the provider. Period.

  12. Moo Kahn Says:

    I susbscribe to Rhapsody – it’s $150/yr rough and tough, or the cost of buying 15 CDs. On the surface, what a great deal… listen to anything you want any time… and that’s pretty much true (not much Beatles, Zep, Sinatra, Eagles, etc… still big holes in the content…) It is nice to take a spin around old albums you don’t own and probably wouldn’t buy…

    But all in all, it’s a BAD deal. Why? Because I wouldn’t buy 15 CDs/ yr – that’s proven. I used to buy lots of vinyl, but once CDs came out I was busy raising kids and no longer buying music. So my catalog stops at 1980 or so… the end of “Classic Rock” more or less.

    If I was inclined to spend $150/yr on music, I would have been doing it from 1980 until now, and would own everything I wanted by now…right? I probably haven’t purchased $150 in CDs from 1980 until now..much less the $4500 Rhapsody would have cost me over 30 years had it existed.

    OTOH – The iTunes model lets me purchase the one or two tracks from a typical record that are any good… and I own them forever.

    Also – now my interests are collecting old Jazz, classic rock that never made it to CD, etc. And that stuff is nowhere to be found in Rhapsody.

    Anyway – I’m going to start using iTunes more, and ditch Rhapsody. I think a lot of folks feel the same way.

  13. M Akicta Says:

    I want to own hold something. For me digital downloaded stuff isn’t “real” then again I guess with just under 30 I already am old! I will buy Digital Downloadable Content if it ADDS to something.

    But you know a blu-ray, a dvd, a just feels good. And yes at least it plays..well not sure with blu-ray I hope they crack some of it’s nastier security parts!

  14. Stephen Feger Says:

    I would like, for once, someone who writes an article on music subscription services to acknowledge this one simple line of logic.

    You can’t get it even if you want it.

    Apple’s iPod line of MP3 players controls what percentage of the current market? 70% or so, correct? Apple doesn’t have a subscription service that works with its iPod line of MP3 players. Correct? So no more than 30% of the population could even possibly use a music subscription service to start with? Heck, that even assumes that every one of those 30% actually subscribed. So we say the world doesn’t want it?

    I’m not saying subscription services are for everyone. They’re not. But this idea that people don’t like subscription services ignores the point that the overwhelming majority couldn’t use one if they wanted to.

    Now I know that a lot of people might say “Well, if consumers wanted a music subscription service, they would buy an MP3 player that could handle it”. No. Give Apple credit. Their iPod line is, and always has been, great. There are a lot of MP3 players that give you a lot more for less. But iPods are still over 70% of the market. It’s a good design with limited offerings. Gee, any other reason why there’s no FM tuner in ANY iPod?. Don’t tell me they don’t guide the entire music market. Tons of article are written every day on that.

    So let’s start off with a different premise… What’s Apple afraid of?

    Certainly *some* people would want it. So that would have to include *more* sales in general, right? That’s always a good thing. You can’t tell me Apple doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to accommodate a subscription service. No. Simply put, a subscription service hurts their revenue stream. They want you buying music. They make their money in volume. A subscription service would impact that volume. So no go on the subscription. Apple is about economics. They do it well and I applaud them for it.

    But please, please… don’t say it’s because the world doesn’t like (or isn’t interested in) subscription services. It’s just not a credible argument.

  15. Vulpine Says:

    It seems, Stephen, you either ignore or are unaware of certain things. While you claim that the majority of the world couldn’t use it even if they wanted it, the fact is that they could–if they wanted it.

    You mention the lack of FM tuners for iPods. Well, admittedly Apple doesn’t put one into the unit, there are several models of plug-in tuners readily available for the iPod. Honestly, I don’t have one simply because I don’t want one. If I want to listen to FM, I’ve got several different ways to get it, and I don’t use any of them.

    If I want radio, I listen to Satellite or to the radio in the car. Much more choice of programming is available on satellite without that mass of commercial announcements and mindless fluff you hear from the average radio announcer. The bad part is, my favorite local FM station just so-completely changed its format that I don’t even listen to that any more. Something like TomFM or the like. The point is, if that capability can be easily plugged into an iPod, so can subscription.

    You ask what Apple is afraid of and honestly I don’t believe they’re afraid of anything. They just believe that selling a complete product is a far sight better than renting it to you. Subscriptions so far have failed miserably and in nearly every case for the same reason: if, for any reason, the subscription server dies, you lose access to everything you subscribed to. Literally, you wasted your money and have nothing what-so-ever to show for it! An iPod loaded with your purchased and downloaded/uploaded music/video/movies will never expire. As long as your data is accessible, your music is valid. And as everyone already knows, you always back up your data. Right?

  16. John Says:

    I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want a subscription service. It’s a great way to hear new music. This whole “music is a personal thing” and needs to be owned is crap. Yes, music you really like should be owned. But how do you know if you like something if you don’t get a chance to hear it? On most download sites, that lousy random 30 seconds of a song you get to sample isn’t long enough to make an informed decision. And I certainly don’t have the money to just buy stuff on a whim and hope it’s good. I need to be able to hear entire songs over and over before I decide I want to purchase them. $15 seems to me a reasonable fee to try out as many songs from as many artists as I wantin order to make informed decisions on how I spend my music dollars.
    Stephen is right though, these services need to work on iPods. I am an iPod owner and therefore can’t use these services.I would love to, but I’m not going to go out and purchase a special player just for subscription services. If one of the players that did work with these subscriptions had the capacity of my iPod, I might consider it. But they just don’t.

  17. birdergirl Says:

    Why do you HAVE to own an iPod? I’m getting along quite nicely in “my World,” not “i-World.”

    Through my Rhapsody subscription I have discovered (and rediscovered) dozens of artists in a number of different musical genres that I’d never find at iTunes. I know. I looked there. That alone is worth the price of admission.

    I believe the subscription model markets better to a more mature audience. We are not about to chase all over trying to find that obscure record. (I’m dating myself. They’re still “records.”) But I can log in to Rhapsody and do my housework to Roots Reggae, if that’s what I’m in the mood for. I don’t listen to music on the radio- haven’t for years. Commercial programming has nothing to offer me.

    I, and others like me, are the market for subscription services. We may not be the majority, but we aren’t that few, either.

  18. Micmumc Says:

    For john, if you need to find out about music and see if it’s good youtube it or grooveshark. Subscription no longer makes sense because there are several good free streaming sites. If you want discovery, go to pandora. If you don’t need to own the music, you can still isten to it for free elseware.

  19. Damon Says:

    I love the Rhapsody subscription “To Go”. I can explore hundreds of more albums. I could never do this with itunes. I can listen to bands that have never and might never get onto local radio. I can download hundreds of CDs to explore onto up to three mp3 players and listen anywhere anytime. When I read a music magazine I can actually listen to the entire album that was reviewed or recommended! I love that. And when I find some music I really like I go to and purchase the whole CD and I know I love it BEFORE I buy it (especially if It never got onto radio or TV). I’ve discovered many older bands and metal bands that I would never have come across. Some of us need to sample more than 30 seconds of music we might never have heard before prior to purchasing it.( especially those of us who listen to music that doesn’t make it onto MTV. *** and that’s probably 95% of the music in the world ūüėČ

  20. joe Says:

    I absolutly LOVE my rhapsody. Just the fact that my entire playlist follows me from place to place is great.

    Try this with iTunes:
    Go to a party, load up Rhapsody, let everybody choose/play music all night – save the playlist for later replay.

    I have found some great new music that way, plus rediscovered stuff that I had forgotten about.

    And, I enjoy being able to listen to entire albums when I want to. I don't really want to listen to that TOTO album often (or maybe ever again…) but that one time was fun.

    Just my 2 cents worth!

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