When subscription services make sense

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Many of the editors around here have been less than enthusiastic about “subscription” music services such as Rhapsody. Our reasons include, but are not limited to, the following: once you stop paying the monthly fee, you lose the use of any music you’ve downloaded from the service; you’re limited in what you can do with that music (for example, you can’t burn it to CD with most services); many such services aren’t cross-platform; and because most of these services use Microsoft’s DRM, you’re restricted to using particular music-management software and a limited selection of portable media players. (The latter point is of course also true of Apple’s iTunes Store—except that iTunes-purchased content works with iTunes and the iPod—you know, the software and player that own the vast majority of their respective markets.)

But these complaints about subscription services are based on a particular (though very popular) listening model—one where you download music to your computer and then listen it on multiple devices such as iPods, other computers, remote music players, and the like. In such a setup, subscription services present obvious hurdles. So it’s no surprise to me that these services haven’t been very successful. The majority of music listeners have stuck to the iTunes Store (which, though still restricted, offer more options thanks to a less-restrictive DRM policy and the many accessories available for iPods and iTunes), their own CDs, or—let’s not kid ourselves here—stealing music.

But this computer-based, multiple-listening-device model isn’t the only approach to enjoying digital music out there. A few weeks ago, Sonos dropped in to show me the new Sonos 2.0 software. I’ve been a big fan of Sonos’ Digital Music System, which, though pricey, is currently my favorite method for getting music from a computer to other rooms in the house. But the Music System does more than just play back your own music. Like Slim Devices Squeezebox products and Roku’s SoundBridge Radio, the Sonos system also supports Internet radio and Rhapsody’s music service directly. However, unlike those two, the Sonos system doesn’t require a computer running Rhapsody software—it connects to Rhapsody directly. By offering direct—and easy—browsing and playback of Rhapsody content, the Sonos system changes the debate about subscription services.

What am I talking about here? Consider that when you’ve got a Sonos ZonePlayer connected to your home stereo system, and you’re sitting in front of that system—rather than in front of your computer—it doesn’t really matter where music is stored: on your computer, on a network drive, or somewhere on the Internet. Nor does it necessarily matter whether or not you “own” that music or if you can transfer it to your iPod. What matters is that you have instant access to the content—you just want to be able to call up a track and play it, or stick it in a playlist, right then and there in your living room. In this context, not only does a subscription service work, but it’s downright attractive. For $10 a month—less than the cost of a single CD, or the same price as an album on the iTunes Store—you have instant access to somewhere in the neighborhood of a million tracks. Feel like hearing David Bowie? You can listen to him all afternoon. Have a playlist of 80s favorites you’ve set up? Press play and they’re streamed to your stereo. It’s a bit like on-demand cable television—you pay a fee in order to have instant access to virtually any music at any time through your home entertainment system.

Sure, the quality of subscription-service audio isn’t as good as music you’ve ripped yourself (although that’s true of iTunes-purchased music, as well). And if you’re a heavy portable-player user, subscription services still have significant flaws. But if you listen to most of your music while at home, being able to instantly play back nearly any song you can think of is a compelling feature. And in this particular case, the Sonos system, with its Controller’s large, clear display and iPod-like scroll-wheel interface, makes accessing that content easy and allows you to listen in every room where you’ve got a ZonePlayer. And at only $10 a month, the cost of the Rhapsody subscription is low enough that it’s easy to justify using both Rhapsody and a for-purchase service such as iTunes or eMusic.

I’ve been considering the purchase of a Sonos system for my own home since I first reviewed it. This improved integration with Rhapsody may just get me to bite the bullet and empty my wallet—and, for the first time, to join a subscription-based music service. I’d still use the iTunes Store just as much, and I’ll still be buying CDs, but I welcome any convenient source of content for my home entertainment system.

Of course, a Sonos/Rhapsody partnership isn’t the only situation in which a subscription-based service will work; it’s just the first that’s won me over. I suspect we’ll see a good number of products over the next few years that will offer similar functionality. In fact, the Sonos/Rhapsody demo got me thinking a bit more about Apple’s reluctance to offer a subscription-based service. Up until now, I think the company has been on the right track by limiting iTunes to a for-purchase model. But that’s not to say this will always be the case. Technologies change, and new technologies could create more contexts in which a subscription model would make sense.

For example, Apple’s already announced at least one “listen at home” product with an interface that could conceivably be used to interact with a subscription service: iTV. What if you could pay Apple a monthly fee to have streaming access to all music content on the iTunes Store through your iTV? And the Internets have been awash with rumors of other potential products—namely, an “iPhone” and wireless iPods—that might be suitable for such use.

As with TV, I think the music industry is going to be moving at least a chunk of its distribution to on-demand services; after all, there’s value to the consumer in being able to listen to so much music for a low monthly fee, and the music industry loves subscription services because they get revenue without handing over actual copies of music. As more and more people become comfortable with streaming audio—and, just as important, have the technology to conveniently use it— streaming services are going to become a feasible option for many more people than they are today. And I don’t expect Apple to sit idly by while that happens.

This story, "When subscription services make sense" was originally published by PCWorld.

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