• So You Want to Rent Music?

    December 3rd, 2005

    You don’t have to remind me that Apple owns the digital music market. What’s more, it’s now doing better than some of the well-known retail music chains, such as Sam Goody. Everything is coming up roses, and Apple has no incentive to change anything, except to keep ahead of the competition, such as it is.

    Yet I can also see valid reasons why the rental alternative might just make sense, although it’s a hard sell these days. This isn’t to say that iTunes isn’t giving you a chance to decide what tunes (and now videos) to download. You can always play a 30-second clip to see if the song has potential. There are lots and lots of charts to consult, so you can track a song’s popularity online or elsewhere. If that’s not enough for you, check out a playlist from a celebrity, to see if your favorite artist has similar tastes, not that I care all that much what, for example, Jennifer Garner listens to.

    For the time being, that sales approach seems sufficient, and if it’s not enough, you can always examine the iMix playlists, published at iTunes by regular folks like you and I. Plenty of opportunity to make a selection, and with hundreds of millions of tracks sold, and two million songs in its inventory, I’m sure Apple feels it’s doing the right thing.

    But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to sample not just 30 seconds but an entire song; an entire album in fact? Sure, it’s quite true that these brief clips might show off the best of a song, and clearly it’s enough for many of you. But I don’t always take to a song the first time I hear it. I’m sure some of you might even agree. It may take a while, a few plays, for some songs to grow on me. Of course there are places where you might hear the entire song, such as at the home or in the car of a friend or relative. There is always radio, but the selections are usually sparse at most commercial stations. There are new music channels at XM and Sirius satellite radio, but you might have to wait a while before a song is repeated, because of the variety.

    So how do you discover all those treasures waiting for you to enjoy? Well, that takes us to the subscription music service. Right now, of course, the likes of Napster-to-Go and Yahoo Music are regarded as pathetic also-rans in the online music derby. Although they have subscription lists in the hundreds of thousands, at the very least, they are not regarded as particularly successful. Of course, a subscription service has its downsides. If you forget to pay your bill one month, and it can happen just because you accidentally failed to update your payment information, your rented song library no longer plays. While there may be a grace period, you may end up having to spend hours downloading everything all over again after you reestablish your account, and just imagine how that might impact someone with a dial-up connection.

    Worse, when you rent a music library, you have to depend that the company will stay in business. I suppose you could feel confident about Yahoo and Real seems to be around for the long haul, especially now that it’s buried the hatchet with Microsoft.

    Oh yes, I failed to mention that these services only run on Windows. Sorry ’bout that, Mac users! Oh well, I suppose you could always buy one of those $399 PC systems at Wal-Mart to sustain your subscription music requirements. By the way, those services don’t support the iPod either, although Real makes an unofficial, unauthorized effort.

    I’m sure Apple is watching these services carefully. I don’t, for example, see any reason why Microsoft couldn’t include its DRM scheme in its Mac version of Windows Media Player, and thus expand support for those other music services. At least you could run them on your Mac, then, right?

    But why would you want to rent music anyway? Look at the potential hazards. It’s not like renting a DVD, because few of you watch a movie more than once, or twice for some of the better films. You want to listen to your favorite music over and over again, hundreds of times, thousands of times. You assemble music libraries tailored to your personal needs, so why risk losing all of it?

    At the same time, I think Apple ought to consider experimenting in this area, if only to give you a chance to really sample a song, or an entire album, by hearing the whole thing without any obligation to buy. Now maybe it doesn’t make sense to usher in a full-service subscription option at this point, since iTunes is doing quite well, thank you. But how about paying a modest monthly fee to allow you to listen to an entire track a few times? It wouldn’t be a permanent deal, not a replacement for selling the song, but just to give you a real taste of it. It’s not as if you can buy a track and then return it to the music store if you decide you don’t really like it. I suppose you wouldn’t even call it a subscription, but a full-service sampling program. If you decide you want to buy a track, you can get, say, a small discount if you have it “unlocked” so you own it in the same fashion as any song you buy from iTunes.

    Would Apple contemplate a scheme of this sort? Well, it strikes me as a compromise between renting and buying music, and the expectation is that you’d eventually do the latter. It might even boost sales. Call it a special “trial” program. It makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

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