Category Archives: Music

Subscription? I don’t think so.

It seems that Rick Rubin thinks that the subscription model is the wave of the future – a “bigger idea,” says he:

“You’d pay, say, $19.95 a month, and the music will come anywhere you’d like. In this new world, there will be a virtual library that will be accessible from your car, from your cellphone, from your computer, from your television. Anywhere. The iPod will be obsolete, but there would be a Walkman-like device you could plug into speakers at home.”

I haven’t met a single person who subscribes to music. None. And I can’t imagine not owning my new music. I bought it, it’s mine. I understand the evils of piracy, I know the extent of my rights to that particular copy of that particular song, and I’m down with it. I hate DRM, but I somewhat sympathize the industry’s reluctance to remove it – it’s hard to think straight with your collective heads up your ass.

Anyway, John Gruber at Daring Fireball has a good take on the DRM aspect of this idea:

But here’s the problem with subscription-based music: you can’t have it without DRM. Because without DRM, what’s to stop someone from subscribing for one month, downloading every song they might ever want, then unsubscribing but keeping the music?

That’s an excellent point, but not what jumps out at me as the craptastic part of subscription music. No, what I think is insane is the whole “you can listen to any song, any time” for the low low price of $20 or whatever. What that system neglects to take into account is that many people only listen to a very small subset of what’s commercially available.

For instance: I have a modest 3,700 songs on my iTunes. According to the playcounts on iTunes, I have listened to 781 of them since last Christmas. That’s a bit over 20% of my music collection – and that doesn’t count the hundreds of CDs that I haven’t ripped onto my computer yet, which I rarely listen to.

Now, the music industry wants to make available to me bajillions of songs, the majority of which are by artists I don’t know or don’t care about, or are in languages I don’t even understand. The songs that might interest me, and that I might want to purchase, are (you guessed it) a small subset of the total songs available.

So how much would it cost to listen to my 781 songs under the iTunes model? Tough to say – some were bought as parts of albums, and some of those albums were either less than $9.99 or contained more than 10 tracks for my $9.99. But let’s keep it simple: $0.99 per song. That means that my 781 songs cost me $773.19.

In the subscription model, at $20/month, that $773.19 would take me 38 months, or a little over 3 years, to pay. After those 38 months, I’m paying more to listen to the same songs. Unless I start listening to an average of 20 new songs a month, continuously, for the rest of my life, while not ever ceasing to listen to the ones I already like, I’m getting screwed.

But what about the kids, you say? What about a voracious consumer who is up on the latest pop trends, who downloads and listens to new stuff all the time? Sorry, I really think you’re getting the gas pipe as well. If you listen to 10 new songs a month, that’s still $2 a pop. Maybe it’s worth it for a teenager or pre-teen, when the latest HSM2 or Jonas Brothers just HAS to be on your player. But that’s a crazy expensive habit – nearly $1,000 to buy your kid music throughout high school, $1,500 if you factor in junior high as well. And it’s all disposable: think your daughter will be listening to Hannah Montana’s CDs in her dorm room in college? Me neither. But you’re paying for it. It’s like paying for the Netflix and not watching the movie for months on end.

But that’s not true, the industry tells you. Look at all the music you have access to, the industry tells you. Only $20, they tell you. Don’t believe it.

If I want to listen to a song, and I’m not willing to play hit-or-miss with XM, then I will buy the song. $0.99 is a completely reasonable price to pay for a song. If I want to take a chance on the album, I’ll pay the going rate – $9.99 on iTunes, $13 at my local indie records store, whatever. And thus endeth my outlay for that music.

Let’s face it: as we grow up, we buy less music. I buy less now than I did at 17, 22, even 25. I still pick up a few dozen albums a year – filling in back catalog or staying current with new stuff that suits me. Under my current, non-subscription plan, that works well. It’s discretionary spending. But under a subscription model, music becomes a utility, like the gas bill, phone bill, and (ah ha!) DirecTV bill. Wow, that’s a point of clarity: I already subscribe to my TV…why not music?

Except that I don’t. I pay for delivery, and once that TV signal comes into my house I can do with it as I please. And the signal is ephemeral: once that show is over, it’s over. In these dark days of scant reruns and endless reality shows, the chance I’ll see that episode again without buying it on DVD or Pay-Per-View is pretty low. I can pre-plan with TiVo, or buy the season on DVD, but how many of us constantly re-watch old TV episodes? I don’t. And my guess is that many people don’t, as well.

So what’s the bottom line? It’s easy: subscription is the screw job. It’s lifetime lock-in, a monthly tribute to archaic corporations who have ceased to innovate and instead treat their customers like criminals. And it’s a great idea, too. It looks great to their target demographic: kids and college grads with discretionary cash and huge appetites for music. But once they stoke the music addiction with a subscrption, they’ll learn in a few years that it’s money down the drain, a monthly payment for millions of songs they don’t like or don’t care about. By the time they’re in their mid 30s, instead of having a nice solid record collection that hits their musical sweetspot, they’re paying monthly dues to a club they don’t want to belong to any more. But if they stop, *Poof*! The 731 songs they do listen to go up in smoke.

It’s almost like Phillip Morris cooked this up.


Marah & Nick Hornby Podcast coming Wednesday

Stop Press – Podcast special coming Wednesday | The Penguin Podcast

Having missed the London show (something about tremendously huge airfare), this should be a fantastic set of podcasts to listen to. And if you've got some semi-literate friends who haven't sipped on the Marah Kool-Aid, this may be the hook they need.