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  • Do You Want to Rent Music?

    November 24th, 2006

    If you ask Steve Jobs, he’ll tell you that people want to own their music. He can point to the fact that over a billion-and-a-half songs have been sold at the iTunes store, and that Apple holds over 80% of the legal music download market in the U.S.

    However, Microsoft and the various partners they double-crossed with their PlaysForSure digital rights management scheme will claim that you prefer to rent. You really are delighted pay a fixed fee every month, and get a choice of millions of tunes to download to your PC or an “approved” music player. Of course, the iPod is not approved, nor can you make a CD compilation.

    To be perfectly technical, of course, Apple really isn’t selling you a product so much as a license to use music and videos with a few restrictions, such as the number of computers, the number of times a single playlist can be burned onto a CD and so on. The restrictions aren’t bad enough to impact most regular people, but they are still there. You don’t own the thing outright, as you’d own a CD or a DVD. And even then there are restrictions, such as making copies of the latter.

    Forget, for the moment, that you can get around many of these restrictions with unofficial methods. They aren’t sanctioned by the various music services, and the RIAA couldn’t wait to sue you if they catch you on their radar. But that’s how it is.

    The real issue is how do you want to acquire your music. Is Apple right? Or Microsoft and the other companies who offer subscription music as an option?

    The music rental model might seem to be reminiscent of renting movies. You go to your video store, or sign up with Netflix or Blockbuster. With monthly plans, you’re allotted a certain number of movies at one time, to keep as long as you want, and you get replacements, item-for-item, as the old ones are returned. With music subscription services, you can have it all at once, or most of it anyway. Some tracks are not licensed for subscription. You must buy them, and that’s it.

    So even if you wanted to strictly rent, you are apt to run across selections now and then that aren’t part of the subscription program. And there are lots of other issues that aren’t so easily resolved. What happens if you forget to pay your bill on a particular month? And that can happen if you’re credit card reaches its limit, or is no longer active. When the music service attempts to charge the card, it doesn’t work and, after whatever grace period is involved, your music doesn’t work either.

    If your music is downloaded to a player, how does it know you didn’t pay? Well, every so often, you must dock it with your PC to make sure everything is still authorized. If you’re off on an ocean cruise when all this transpires, that’s too bad. You have to stop listening till you get back home. Now why didn’t you take a note-book with you?

    What do you do then? Well, I suppose you can update your credit card, have it charged, and download your library all over again. You want to put everything on a CD? Well, that’s a permanent copy. It can’t just stop working, so the subscription services don’t allow it. It’s the PC, the player, or just buy the songs you want.

    Now when I interviewed industry analyst Rob Enderle about this for The Tech Night Owl LIVE, he said you really wanted to just pay a flat fee every month, rather than buy ala carte. Maybe he talks to different people than I do. I don’t know, but the marketplace has shown, so far, that most of you don’t really want to just rent music. This may be simply because Apple doesn’t offer that choice for its iconic music player, but I’m sure that if customers clamored for it, they’d make it available. Money is money, after all, and the music companies wouldn’t mind a bit if they could charge you for the same stuff forever, or until the service is discontinued.

    And that’s another issue here. If a music service goes out of business, what happens then to all the songs you’ve downloaded, and all the monthly fees you paid? There’s no guarantee how long those music services will function, after all, or whether new players will be supported. Take the Zune, for example. All the songs you rented or bought from the previous Microsoft-sanctioned music systems are simply not supported. You have to start from scratch. Is that a user-friendly approach?

    On the other hand, there’s one positive aspect to music rentals. If can give you a chance to sample new songs, play them a time or two, and then buy them if you choose. A 30-second clip is all right, I suppose, but sometimes it takes more to discover a particular artist. For this reason alone, I can see the logic behind subscription services for avid music lovers as an alternative. You don’t expect permanence, just a chance for discovery and possible purchase later on.

    What do you think?

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