Speaking of subscriptions

According to the Financial Times, Apple is in talks with the music companies to offer an all-you-can-eat plan where you’d be granted access to the iTunes Store’s entire music catalog after paying a premium for an iPod. BusinessWeek counters with a “Not So Fast” story, where it claims that while Apple has been kicking around some ideas for a subscription music scheme, nothing concrete has come from those ideas. It then goes on to suggest that a plan like this could benefit music companies by promising them a more predictable revenue stream as well as help Apple by boosting sagging iPod sales.

Reaction to the rumor has elicited a fair measure of hand-wringing and over-my-dead-body sentiments, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given Steve Jobs’ suggestion (and the general acceptance of same) that people want to own their music. As someone who enjoys owning music as much as the next guy, but who also has embraced the music subscription model, I’d like to offer a broader perspective by exploring the accepted wisdom of music possession.

You Need to Own Your Music Because You’ll Carry it With You For the Rest of Your Life You know how you desperately loved Bonnie-Sue Hayes in your sophomore year of high school and swore that you would never love again after she dumped you for that stringy-haired pothead and then you got another girlfriend who was cute but it just wasn’t going anywhere and then you dumped her for someone who was really mean and then there was that vegetarian hippie chick who left you to follow some psychic nutjob in Minnesota and then you found the perfect girlfriend who you eventually married?

The music you bought in your teens is like Bonnie-Sue Hayes. Perfectly appropriate for the time, but can you image being with her today? The music that was so heavenly in high school is going to sound really dated 20 years hence. Yes, there are some musical works you’ll want to keep forever, but the majority of what most people own turns out to be disposable.

I Am Outraged That My Music Collection Will Disappear When I Stop Paying My Subscription Fee This doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Should Apple offer some kind of subscription scheme, how likely is it that it will abandon music sales? Not at all. Selling music works for Apple. If you truly want to own something, you can.

A subscription service can be both an enhancement to ownership as well as an end unto itself. As an enhancement you have the opportunity to explore music you would never otherwise hear. Should you find something you like and don’t plan to stay subscribed forever, feel free to buy it.

And as an end, the freedom to engage in this kind of exploration is incredibly powerful. For example, if you’re a classical music geek you now have the opportunity to listen to 20 different versions of a beloved symphony or follow the recordings of a particular orchestra or conductor. Jazz enthusiasts can watch Miles Davis grow from young be-bopper to electric space-case without investing in dozens of albums. Kids wondering what this whole punk thing was about can sample as much of it as they can stand. And on and on.

You’d no more want to own most of this material than you’d want to own every TV show you see when channel surfing. It’s all about the exploration and the immediate experience of discovery. You pay your cable company for this kind of viewing experience, why is the notion of doing the same for music so abhorrent?

I Own The Tunes I Like And Want No Part of Today’s Lousy Music If you bemoan the fact that they don’t write songs the way they once did a subscription service will change your mind. With such a tool in hand you can follow links from artists you loved to today’s musicians. Chances are you’ll find that music hasn’t gone to hell in a hand-basket—it’s just that you haven’t been exposed to it because the radio stations you listen to don’t play stuff by artists not heavily promoted by the majors.

Honestly, I don’t need Apple to do this. I’ve got it covered thanks to a variety of Web-based music sources and a house wired to listen to them. But it takes a variety of sources and wires to do it right. Apple has the experience and know-how to make the process simpler. And, perhaps more importantly, it has the power and perspective to make the notion of subscription music digestible.

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