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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

iTunes to add subscription service?

Usually I don't pay much attention to Apple rumors, but this one caught my eye. According to the Financial Times, Apple is in talks (with whom?) to add an "all you can eat" subscription service to the cost of a new iPod. What I've seen on the article (it's hidden behind a subscriber login,) it seems they would do something similar to the Nokia/Universal deal.

Now, I think i've mentioned it before, but I'm a big supporter of the subscription music thing. Well, at least I'm a supporter in principal because as of yet, I haven't been able to take advantage of one of the few in operation. And this leads me to the criticisms that people always trot out when you bring up subscription bases music services and why I think they're off the mark.

One of my favorites is the ever popular "it's doesn't work/it's a failed business model." This implies that there has been some large scale subscription music service out there that people just don't want a part of. Well, there are two companies offering such a thing, Napster and Rhapsody. Both of them only offer tracks as protected Windows Media, which won't work on the iPod (or Microsoft's own Zune.) So, is it really fair to declare the whole idea a failure when the only companies to try it have made their product incompatible with the most popular music player out there (and completely incompatible with an entire computer operating system as well.)

Then there's the "people want to own, not rent, their music" crowd. Sure, there's a lot of people who feel that way. For many things, I agree with them. But, I think the reality of the current music biz doesn't play this one out. Sales are dropping. Used CD are glutting the market. People are still downloading music though.

OK, I'm one of those people who doesn't equate downloading with owning the music, especially when it's DRM laden. To my eyes, if people really cared that much about owning the music, CD sales would still be climbing, not falling. People wouldn't be ripping and tossing their CD collections. I just don't think it's all that important for most people to "own" their music as long as they have access to it, which is what the subscription thing is really about.

And let's take a look as the kind of stuff people are buying. Something like fifty skadillion people downloaded "Crank That." How many of those people do you thing really feel the need to own that one? How many will want to hear it five years from now? This time next year, I guarantee that CD will be clogging used bins.

Now, let's say those people were offered a chance to download that on a subscription basis. They could listen to it as much as they wanted as long as they were paid up, and they could listen to millions of other songs too. When they were sick of Solja Boy, that track disappears and they never have to think about it again. Unless they want to hear it and it's just a click away.

I think the people making this argument are also creating a false dichotomy. The existence of subscription based music service does not mean CDs are going to disappear. I'm sure the music industry will be more than happy to accommodate, for an additional fee, those who wish to "own" all the Solja Boys and Nicklebacks and whatever else. As I understand, even Napster and Rhapsody's subscriptions allow one to purchase tracks if they want.

Now, there are a few things I think are valid. The big one is who is making money off this and where it is going. I'm already skeptical about how much money actually goes back to the artists in the current download system. If things change to a one time fee of $20 - $80 (as the Times article mentions,) how is anyone making anything out of this? Specifically, how does that filter to the artists actually making the music? My guess is, like the RIAA settlements, it doesn't.

And when the industry is moaning about lost profit etc., doesn't turning over the keys to the shop for a one-time payout (and a small one at that) seem counterintuitive? Far be it for me to cry for the major labels, but I find it curious they would even consider something like this when it seems like every other day we hear about how in the crapper they are. (Of course, business decisions like this might have something to do with it.)

The other thing that I think needs to be addressed is, will this be optional? Let's say you are someone who really has no interest in downloading stuff and you're only planning to use your iPod for your own rips. Why should you be charged for a service you'll never use? (Let's face it, the Times article makes it sound like Apple is paying for this, but we all know it will come back to the consumer. Apple is not a charity and they don't need to take a loss to add something like this, even though I think it would totally decimate the competition if they could pull it off.)

So there's my take on this whole thing. As a consumer and music fan, I think it's a great idea, if they can make it work. As a musician, I'm a little concerned about following the money.

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