Years ago, the late Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, proudly proclaimed that people wanted to own their music. In touting the iTunes Music Store, he said it was the best way to get the music you want at affordable prices. For the music industry, the iPod and iTunes were salvation for a time. Stung by loads of people downloading pirated music, this was a way to rebuild the industry’s income stream.
Of course things change.
Now Steve Jobs wasn’t always correct in his prognostications, or in his suggestions about what people liked and didn’t like. Sometimes Apple was working on a solution and attacking existing gear was merely done for marketing reasons. But Jobs also told us that you didn’t want a small tablet. After he left this mortal plane, Apple released the iPad mini. Since then, the tablet space was also served with the extremely popular iPhone 6 Plus with an even smaller display.
Before the iPhone phablet appeared, people at Apple disputed the value of larger smartphones, and the main argument, certainly true enough, was that one-handed use was impossible or restricted. Way back in late 2004, at a quarterly conference call with the financial community, Apple executives said they’d never produce a low-cost PC, saying they were all junk.
In January 2005, Apple introduced the Mac mini for $499.
As I said, marketing considerations may influence the reaction to a specific product or service, but quite often things change. You expect, then, that Apple will respond.
So after years of success in the digital music download business, sales are on the decline and it appears that more and more people want to get their music via subscriptions to such services as Spotify and even Beats Music. According to a published report citing Warner Music Group, it appears sales from streaming music have finally surpassed sales from actual downloads.
What this means is that, if the trend holds true for other music companies, more and more people have decided they’d do better off paying roughly $9.99 per user per month to get unlimited music streaming. But don’t forget that price is for one user at a time. If you have a large family, it can get a little expensive. At Spotify, it’s $29.99 for five users. If you are a member of a larger family, I suppose you have to get more than one account to accommodate your needs.
Contrast that to being able to buy just one track or album from Apple for your nuclear family of up to six people. Yes, I realize that privilege is easily extended with the sharing of devices, and don’t forget the venerable CD. Regardless, when you buy your music, you keep your music. With a subscription, when you stop paying, the music dies, except when there’s a version with ads, in a sense a music radio station without the DJ chatter.
It has been widely reported that Apple is busy rejiggering Beats Music to become an iTunes branded service, accompanied by an enhanced iTunes Radio. Supposedly new agreements are being sought with the music industry. It was even reported that Apple wanted to find a way to cut the price from $9.99 a month to, say, $7.99 per month, but that wasn’t the way it turned out. It seems that the music companies wouldn’t accept terms that would allow for a lower price. I suppose the theory goes that cheaper subscriptions might mean more subscribers and hence more revenue.
Of course, none of that has ever been confirmed.
Now what we see here is a sea change in the music industry after a very long time. The original phonograph was invented in the 1870s. By the late 1960s, vinyl’s first successful mass market replacement, the compact cassette, offered a convenient way for you to play recorded music in a car or a portable device. Yes, there were efforts to put record players in cars with very mixed results.
By the 1980s, CDs appeared and ultimately took over, though to this very day, there are vinyl diehards who insist that the analog LP delivers a far more satisfying musical experience. Or maybe listeners feel comforted with the soft surface noise and the crackles and pops. It starts to sound like a breakfast cereal, though I understand vinyl’s attractions, even though the vinyl recording may be sourced from the same digital master recording used for the CD, specially mixed for the specific LP needs.
But through it all, people bought their music, traded their music, sold their music often in exchange for other music. When digital took over, you could put an entire music library on a tiny digital device, such as the iPod and later the iPhone and the iPad, plus loads of competing devices. Unless the music was freely exchanged, or offered for free download, it was still something you bought and paid for and kept.
While you don’t expect Apple or other successful companies to go out of business, what if one of them does, or chooses to abandon the service, and thus your streaming music library is no longer available?
Now having lived through the vinyl, compact cassette and CD eras, and having settled on digital downloads for most of my current purchases, I cannot imagine the wisdom of a subscription service. There have been times in my life when even a small monthly fee may not be small enough, and I don’t want to lose my music.
Clearly the public has other ideas, however, if sales from Warner Music apply, more or less, to the entire industry and the trend continues. Apple and the companies will do what’s necessary to serve the needs of their customers. But I won’t be one of those customers.