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The end of music collecting

Randall Stosser's article in yesterday's NYT Business section complained about the new iPhone perpetuating Apple's DRM scheme, arguing that the system cripples customers' enjoyment while shackling them to Apple players for perpetuity. This seems self-evident to me, always making me wonder who these millions are who bother with the iTunes store -- impulse buyers who can't be troubled with ferreting out mp3s from other (pirate or otherwise) sources? Strosser is similarly confused, wondering not only why you would want to amass a collection of music that you can't play freely on whatever system you wanted, but why you'd bother collecting songs at all, when subscription services that offer you the entirety of recorded music are just around the corner.

In the long view, Mr. Goldberg said he believes that today’s copy-protection battles will prove short-lived. Eventually, perhaps in 5 or 10 years, he predicts, all portable players will have wireless broadband capability and will provide direct access, anytime, anywhere, to every song ever released for a low monthly subscription fee.

It’s a prediction that has a high probability of realization because such a system is already found in South Korea, where three million subscribers enjoy direct, wireless access to a virtually limitless music catalog for only $5 a month. He noted, however, that music companies in South Korea did not agree to such a radically different business model until sales of physical CDs had collapsed.

Is this really going to be the future? Shuffle-play the songs you get from subscription services like the ones foretold here and you get something that resembles a somewhat less futuristic invention: the radio. Still, I can understand a subscription model, which would change the mentality of subscribers from a collecting mentality to a playlist-making one -- you become the DJ of your own individualized radio station that broadcasts to you and you alone wherever you go. If you are too lazy, then some sort of Pandora-like software will pick songs you'll like based on the taste profile you help it build. And how easy will it be to let people judge you by your musical taste? Rather than display your collection to them or laboriously type in your favorite bands on a MySpace profile, you can just export the playlists you construct for computer analysis and decoding. This is already going on -- iLike, for example, is a social-networking tool that allows you to spy on other people's iTunes history, what they've recently played, what they've played a lot.

The pleasures of ownership are sometimes hard to separate from the pleasures of experiencing the things we own, since ownership seems to hold the promise of that experience in abeyance. But in the case of music, the subscription model should blow away the clouds of confusion. If this model takes hold and dominates, obviously it would put an end to casual music collecting, and it will make clear once and for all the difference between enjoying music and enjoying collecting. People who collect music may like music, but that's not really what it's about. (The most extreme example of this that I can think of is this guy who collected records and scheduled a methodical routine not for playing them but cleaning them. The idea that he would play them was absurd to him as actually reading a bagged and rated comic would be to a hard-core comic-book collector.) If all the music in the world is available for $5 a month, it will make no sense at all to collect music for the sake of the music. But it will make plenty of sense to collect if you like collecting; that is, if you like organizing fascinating objects, grooming them, and completing series of things for the sake of it, for the satisfaction that comes with a fleeting sense of finality. You won't have the alibi of really being into music to excuse your obsession, but maybe it won't seem necessary for an alibi -- it hardly seems required as it is. But the coming separation of enjoying music and collecting it hits hard people like me, who thrive on the alibi, who let the dialectic between ownership and experience drive them to keep hearing more, acquiring more. Take away the need to archive, and I may just lapse into listening what I already know and am familiar with. If I don't have to justify keeping something by making myself listen to it first and make an aesthetic decision, I'll go with what I know -- play that John Phillips record again. (Sometimes I romanticize that feeling of being stuck on a record; sometimes it makes me feel stuck in a rut, depressed.) Being a collector drives the pleasures of evaluation over and above those of sensual experience; without the collecting excuse to prefer evaluation over sensual pleasure, it becomes it bit harder to make the effort. I need to collect to keep my taste from atrophying. If subscription services give me everything, I probably would end up wanting nothing at all.

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