Music subscriptions

by Rob Horning

11 June 2007


I share the skepticism the Economist correspondent expresses in this post about the alleged inevitability of subscription services dominating the market for popular music. The correspondent focuses on the pleasures of ownership and our “right” to property:

Is there a reason why we prefer to own our music? Do we trust providers to not raise their rates once we’ve abandoned our own catalogues? To be fair, we didn’t always own music; a hundred years ago, before Edison, we made it ourselves. We raised broods of children to complete our own string orchestras. But at some point after the introduction of the Victrola we began to believe, since we could capture music, that we could own it. We built libraries. They came to define us.
Given that, culturally, we’re not giving up the idea of capturing music, is it likely that we’re going to abandon the idea of owning it? If we rent our music are we ceding a property right?

The implication is that there is a pleasure in merely exercising that property right for its own sake, regardless the nature of the property, in part because owning things helps define us; property constitutes our identity, and until we own things, we have no material basis for supporting our claims to who we are. That seems fairly accurate: A pretty depressing ramification of consumerism is how it makes us dependent on owning things to organize our personalities—though I suppose defenders of consumerism would say it was ever thus and we simply have more options now, thanks to the expansion of markets and the explosion of innovation they have prompted.

But I think the other problem with subscriptions is that people see it as paying for something that is already free, the radio. Pricing of subscription services rely not on the value of music but the value of evading ads, as the music is for most people, more or less interchangeable when it comes right down to it.

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