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  • Would You Rather Buy or Rent Music?

    February 12th, 2005

    If you have a decent collection of CDs or perhaps even some vintage vinyl and cassettes at hand, you understand the joys of owning your own music. Unless stolen or damaged, nobody is going to take them away from you, not even the iPod. You just have to rip your tunes on your Mac (or PC) and download them to your favorite music player.

    But some of those other music download services have decreed that you don’t really want to own your music. You’d rather rent it, just like you rent a video. Now I understand the revenue model with videos. While some of you have accumulated hundreds and hundreds of DVDs and videotapes, most of you prefer to watch a movie just once, or a couple of times with an especially entertaining flick. No sense to buy what you’re not going to see on a fairly regular basis, so you rent. In response to the challenge of Netflix, Blockbuster and other stores let you pay a monthly fee and rent as many as you want, two or three at any one time. And no more late fees!

    So what has this to do with music? Well, if you’re like me, you may listen to one album dozens of times and individual songs hundreds or thousands of times. Then again if I hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” one more time on the radio, I’m going to scream. In any case, can you imagine not owning your own music collection?

    The iTunes Music Store changes the ownership paradigm, making it similar to what applies to computer software. You are actually getting a license of use the music on a given number of computers. The practical effect means you own the music with a few restrictions. Whether you want any further encroachment on your rights is a question a bit beyond the focus of today’s commentary. In any case, welcome to the world of Digital Rights Management.

    Of course, if you have a big music collection, the investment can be positively huge. Thousands of tracks, hundreds of albums. I recall Steve Jobs mentioning that someone had actually purchased 25,000 tracks from iTunes and I’m willing to bet some customers have gone beyond that figure by now.

    But Apple’s competitors want you to believe that it’s better to pay a fixed amount of each month, giving you the right to listen to all the songs you want from the hundreds of thousands available. Some of these services even let you copy your tunes to your MP3 player; the iPod is not supported except, perhaps, by the RealNetworks “Harmony” hack. Regardless, if you want to copy those tracks to a CD, the pricing plan is similar to Apple’s. You pay a fee per track or per album. I should mention that none of the other major music download services are Mac compatible, to their detriment I’m sure.

    If the Mac platform continues to grow, of course, I expect one or more of those services will come to this side of the tracks. The question is whether you would really want their product. On the surface, subscribing to music may seem really cheap, even if you’re locked into using a music player to take it on the road. But even if you’re willing to live with that limitation, you are buying that subscription as an act of faith that the company will stay in business for as long as you want the music. If the company goes out of business or you cancel your subscription, the music goes away. Even on the music player, since it apparently has to link up with the PC to be authenticated every so often.

    Now even if you assume the company will be around way beyond your lifetime, which is a big leap of faith for most of you, what happens if a payment goes astray? Say you change credit cards, or it hits the credit limit, can you imagine the consequences? You take your music player with you for a long vacation. You assume the financial details will take care of themselves, but one day, the music dies, as it were. You have to call the bank to find out what happened to your credit card, or maybe the music service made a mistake and failed to store an update to your payment plan. Imagine yourself on that world cruise, on a sail boat or cruise ship. Suddenly you have to figure out a way to contact the music service and set things right. This may be an extreme situation, but the entire subscription model is fraught with pitfalls.

    Now if you really believe Napster and RealNetworks will be around far longer than you need their services, take a look at some of the older recordings in your collection. Are the music labels still around? At best, they’ve consolidated with a number of other companies; at worst, they are lost in the cobwebs of history. But you still have those old albums around, they will play so long as you have the proper equipment around. They outlive the artists and the labels.

    Perhaps I’m wrong about all this. Maybe a lot of folks will embrace music by subscription. I haven’t seen it happen yet, if the success of the iTunes Music Store is an example. Then again, since it’s the only service that is guaranteed to work with the iPod, the real reason may be that you have no choice.

    As for me, I do not want to rent my music. I want to own it, outright if possible, and even the world of DRM and its lax restrictions leaves a sour taste in my mouth. And I think most of you will agree with me except, of course, the music services that stake their existence on a totally different business model.

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