Do subscriptions make sense for iTunes?

Nobody, save for a few in-the-know Apple executives securely locked away in the company’s Cone of Silence, knows with any certainty what Apple will announce at Tuesday’s music-related press briefing. (Follow the live coverage of Tuesday’s event starting at 10 a.m. PT.) Oh, we can guess with some confidence that it will involve iPods; that’s been Apple’s modus operandi the past few falls, and nothing suggests that the company is going to pass up the chance to refresh its iPod offerings this time around.

But other rumors have been making the rounds. One in particular that’s generated some chatter has been the idea that Apple would expand its digital music offerings to include some sort of subscription based service. Currently, Apple takes an a la carte approach to music retail—you pay a flat rate to download single tracks or entire albums. A subscription-based service typically charges a monthly fee for access to music; in most cases, though, once you end your subscription, you also lose access to your music library.

Everyone from ZDNet to Wired to Cnet have reported on the rumor that Apple is mulling the addition of a subscription-based aspect to iTunes. But would such a move be a good idea for Apple?

Arguing in favor of a subscription component to iTunes is senior editor Christopher Breen who feels that it would augment an already impressive online service. Arguing against is Macworld.com executive editor Philip Michaels who doesn’t think the move would make much sense for Apple.

The case for subscription services

When the subject of music subscription services crop up around the office, every derisive eye blinks in my direction. Because, you see, alone among my colleagues I think such services offer a lot of benefits for the right kind of user. I’ve been a Rhapsody subscriber for years and regret not one of the $13 monthly fees I’m required to cough up to keep the service alive on my computers. And for these reasons:

No, I don’t necessarily want to own all my music: When I was 17 and just building my record collection, I swore that I would listen to Surrealistic Pillow, Catch Bull at Four, Brain Salad Surgery, and Fragile for the rest of my life. When it came time to replace some beloved vinyl with CDs some 15 years later, none of those albums made the cut. And today, only one lives in digitized form in my iTunes library. Much of the music I purchased in the ’80s and ’90s sounds similarly dated and rarely makes it into my current rotation.

So, for me, a lot of pop music is disposable. I will certainly continue to purchase music I treasure (and hope to treasure for the next few years), but the days when I needed to own the latest top-o’-the-pops are long gone.

Kicking the tires: Like you, I have several dozen artists I keep track of—cocking a watchful eye at upcoming releases. In the past I’d purchase just about every one of those releases with the idea that because I liked Artist A’s Album W, X, and Y, Album Z was likely a pretty good bet. While that strategy paid off much of the time, I occasionally wound up purchasing the inevitable clunker. With a subscription service, I’m completely protected from this happening again.

Exploration: As much as I’m a creature of habit, I go through spells when I want to listen to great music from artists I’ve never heard of before. Regrettably, finding such music through “normal” channels isn’t easy. Except for college radio and the very rare independent station, it’s tough to find interesting music on the radio that isn’t being played everywhere else, including the local supermarket. And while the iTunes Store makes some effort to expose you to new music with its Just For You and Listeners Also Bought features, the Store’s strength is guiding you to music and artists you already know you want. While you can get a sense for an album by clicking through a few 30-second previews, it’s not the same thing as taking in an entire album.

A subscription service lets you listen to anything and everything in the service’s library. You’ve paid your fee so there’s no risk in clicking on a cut from an unknown album. If you don’t like what you hear, move on.

And because everything is there, you have the option to tune into musical channels. For example, on Rhapsody I can click into the Afro Pop channel and listen to a style of music I like but don’t have a lot of experience with. When a cut plays that I’m intrigued by, I click the album cover for the currently playing track and I’m taken to that album’s page, where I can listen to the entire album. From there I can follow other links throughout the service—some of which lead to unexpectedly wonderful destinations.

Recommendation and collaboration: You know how you whip our your iPhone to geek-out with your similarly iPhone-bearing buddies over the latest cool app you’ve downloaded or some compelling YouTube video you’ve bookmarked? I’m that way with music. I like nothing better than talking and comparing music with someone whose tastes I respect. With a subscription service you have the opportunity to send and receive useful playlists—ones that you can actually play from beginning to end. Or during an IM session, fling recommendations back and forth and comment (or criticize) as the participants gain greater insight into their pals’ tastes and personality.

Growth: Thanks to services like Rhapsody I’m a more informed listener than I once was. I have the opportunity to listen to a favorite symphony or standard by countless performers and, along the way, learn something about interpretation plus gain greater respect for artists who craft that music in ways that appeals to me. I can learn about a conductor’s style, the strengths of an orchestra, producer, or studio; appreciate why a scratchy recording of a jazz standard from the 40s just kills compared to any rendition recorded since; and follow the career of an artist from his or her early dues-paying days to the inevitable decline on a Las Vegas stage.

So, is a subscription model right for you? Perhaps not. You may like what you like and need nothing more or be confident that you can find and purchase exactly the music that perfectly fits your mood and personality. As for me, I’d like to try a small helping of whatever that exotic sounding thing is over there.—CHRISTOPHER BREEN

The case against subscription services

I have nothing against subscription-based music services. I don’t use such a service myself, but I’ve found there are a lot of things in this world that I don’t get—the CSI family of TV shows, the National Basketball Association, most pop music recorded after 1994—that other people seem to like just fine. Besides, my esteemed colleague Mr. Breen is always going on and on about subscription services, and he’s a man of wealth and taste. If Apple were to introduce such a service on Tuesday or at some point in the near future, I might even be tempted to give it a try.

I just can’t see why Apple would bother.

A little less than four years ago, I sat in a hotel ballroom just outside Hollywood listening to a steady parade of record executives and online retailers predict doom—or at least, short-lived success—for Apple’s a la carte approach to selling music. Subscription services—that was where things were at, speakers at the 2004 Music 2.0 conference agreed, and Apple could either get on board or watch helplessly as its spot as the No. 1 online music retailer was usurped by subscription-based upstarts.

Well, Apple has more or less stuck to its 99-cent-per-track worldview. And now it’s the top music retailer in the U.S., topping even Wal-Mart. So obviously, not having a subscription-based service has been disastrous for Apple—so long as “disastrous” also means “financially remunerative.”

It doesn’t? Oh, then it hasn’t been disastrous at all. It’s worked out pretty well for Apple.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a hoary cliché, but things become hoary clichés by also being true more often than not. If people are feeling under-served by what the iTunes Store offers, they’ve got a funny way of showing it.

Apple has made a lot of arguments over the years as to why it doesn’t offer a subscription-based model: People like to own their music. iTunes offers a straightforward, customer-friendly experience while some of its subscription-based rivals do not. Nothing’s really changed in the past few years to make Apple’s case against subscription services any less valid. Quite the opposite, in fact—the iTunes Store has been such a roaring success for the company, there’s no compelling strategic reason for it to alter its gameplan.

There’s an argument to be made that this is where Apple really stands out as a company—that it can walk into an area where others have failed, make a “What reeks?” face, and immediately offer up a vast improvement. That’s how the iTunes Store came about in the first place—a “This is how it’s done, folks” response to the lackluster online music offerings that were befouling the landscape five years ago.

But again that just reiterates how successful the iTunes Store is in its current form. And if you’ve already got a successful digital music store in place, why invite the headaches that come with rolling out a new service. MobileMe and the App Store have had their share of problems in the past couple months, but the potential for both services far outweighs any short-term hassles. Apple already has a very successful method for buying and enjoying digital music. Maybe you leave that be.

Of course, I made a somewhat similar argument against movie rentals via iTunes two years ago, and that sure turned out to be prescient, didn’t it? So I, for one, welcome our new subscription-based music overlords and would like to remind them that I have always been on their side.—PHILIP MICHAELS

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