Theorizing: Music Subscription Models

Source: Music biz looks at giving fans all the songs they want in exchange for broadband access fee (Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune)

When the music industry shined upon subscription-based models, consumers buckled and approached it in a weary manner. There are users of Napster and Rhapsody who have adopted the model, but in general the music-buying public have not adopted this model. However, recent commentary has been on adding a fee to monthly broadband bills to do the same. Would it save stuttering sales? Would consumers flock to the new model? So far, the answer’s been a No to an extent.

Why? Music is collectable, something still tangible even in its intangible format. Throughout the history of recorded music, there’s been a collectibility factor best seen in the vinyl crate, someone’s vinyl record collection that exudes both pride and personality. There’s an unspoken aspect in visiting someone’s home, seeing their CD or vinyl collection-and sifting through it. It’s one part of a person’s home that you can easily go into, as intimate as their closet, and that person will be more than happy to engage you and encourage your discovery. Music represents someone’s personality. (Take note.)

Digital collections, yes, have lost a certain aspect of this, however minor. I can’t tell you how many times people grab my iPod or sift through my iTunes to see what I listen to. Music still represents your personality and people still enjoy sifting through to see what you listen to. This is reflected as well in the function of music services like Last.FM, broadcasting what you listen to and providing personalized charts. However, the CD and vinyl collections still hold. Aficionados have begun switching to vinyl in the past five years, and vinyl will not go away (CD’s…I’m reluctant to say they will). Although the sight of crates and shelfs of CDs may fade, you can still see album art on iTunes, iPods, and the like. That suffices for most.

The subscription models prove a problem to this. The flat fee, and proposed extra cost tacked onto broadband bills, pose a conundrum to the music experience. On one hand, you have consumers who will grow up not experiencing carrying around CD cases on a school bus that are more keen to adopt a subscription model, I theorize, since they have no experience to this or the aforementioned feelings. On the other hand, you have consumers who have experienced this-to which music still holds that tangible quality in multiple ways. As part of the latter group, I question what this subscription model’s impact will be on the art of music. Will the model cause music to lose value? Will it be commoditized? What is the impact on the artists and musicians?

Now let’s get philosophical. Questions need to be addressed prior to jumping on the model. Music is precious, an art. It’s one of our classic forms of expression that has been with us since we started to think. If a subscription model means you have all the music at the click of a mouse, what incentive will remain-after you’ve paid the fee-to purchase the actual, digital or not, music? I don’t mean in terms of today, or five years from now but its impact twenty years and more in the future. We grow accustomed to how things are and adjust accordingly over time, taking it as fact. Will subscription models, or tacked-on fees, unconsciously make consumers expect that all music belongs to them by default? Do members of a museum who pay a yearly or monthly fee believe the art within belongs to them?

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