Subscription Music Breakdown

In the past few months, i've had quite a few questions about what "subscription" music is. This is my attempt to explain it.

Napster, Rhapsody, MusicNow, MTV, and Yahoo! all offer services where you can get unlimited music for about $10 a month. The one caveat is that the tracks you download with these services are all "rented" – meaning that as soon as you stop paying for them, you can no longer play them. The way this works is that each file requires a license to play. When you download a track you get both the file and the license. For a track to play in a player the license must be valid. Whichever service you use, they automatically renew all licenses every 30 days. If you're no longer a subscriber, the license doesn't get renewed and the files don't play. Another company, EMusic, is a little different – you get 40 downloads of mp3's for $10 bucks a month. While you don't get as many files, you get them in mp3 format and can keep them forever – you truly own them.

Why it hasn't worked? This model hasn't worked for two BIG reasons:

  • Can't find enough music to satisfy $10 a month. What do you want for your birthday? Tell me now. It's hard isn't it. Everybody knows they want something for their birthday, but when they have to think about it NOW, it's tough. It is the same with subscription music. Everybody knows they like a bunch of music and want to download it, but when you're at the front page of Napster, it is hard to remember what you want. Trust me, i've done countless focus groups – this is a big problem. If you can find what you want to download, you don't download and the value of an unlimited download service lessens.
  • iPods and iTunes. iPods are not only pretty to look at, with the iTunes player, they are insanely easy to use. As a device, they are so much easier to use than other subscription compatible devices. Using them, users don't have to ever worry about licenses and they don't have to worry about other media players or connections or anything. An ipod works with – and ONLY with – iTunes which means that it is designed to be simple. Microsoft is a platform company. They make platforms that any vendor can use to sell devices or services. Which is great, but it means that both the devices and the WindowsMedia format itself is going to be much, much more complex – and unfortunately for them, it shows. Until that extra functionality MS allows is really useful, it's only a hindrance.

Will subscription ever be a good way to get new tunes? I believe it will. It is very easy to create music now, and the amount of music being created is only going to keep growing. There is a need for people to find and explore the expanding universe of music. Once there are better searching techniques, I believe the utility of subscription music will rise.

Ian Rodgers, who works at Yahoo Music provided (in this podcast) a great way to think about the advantages of subscription music. It went something like this….

users care about 2 things regarding music: playing music and owning music. If you want to own music, you're best bet is to purchase the CD. You get the music in a lossless format which can be burned into any format at any bitrate indefinitely and also receive associated images, liner notes, etc. If you want to play music, your best option is a subscription platform which allows you to play as much as possible for pretty cheap.

I like that thought, but that doesn't account for iPods, nor the convenience of purchasing only a track vs. an entire album.

That's the theory – what do you think?

A funny sidenote that i like. WMA files (non iTunes) are protected by a technology called in the industry Janus, and by marketers "Plays for Sure." Check out a past blog post of mine which describes why this is a clever reference to a muppet.

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