Embracing the complications of music subscription

“Given their obsession with control over making choices about playing music, why would music collectors choose to become subscribers to a music service that extinguishes so many aspects of users’ control over music collections?”
- Patrick Burkart, Music and Cyberliberties, 2010

Good question, Patrick.

I confess a sort of bewilderment at the speed at which I’ve become a “subscriber.” After all, I was one of the last people I know personally who was still purchasing CDs. As late as spring of last year, long after most of my peers had become iTunes people, I was still walking into HMV on occasion and exchanging cash or credit for a shiny piece of metal wrapped in paper or plastic. It wasn’t economical, and given how I was mostly listening to music on my computer or my iPhone by that point—having just retired my six-and-a-half-year-old iPod the previous January—it wasn’t practical either.

It also wasn’t necessarily generational. Because while I’m sure I wasn’t the only member of the “CD generation” (the 7-10 years in between the dominance of the cassette and the MP3) who hung onto those shiny metallic discs a bit too long, I also watched a great number of my peers abandon music purchasing the moment the MP3 came along.

I can’t really say I blame them: all of a sudden, the barriers to accessing music—scarcity and wealth—had been obliterated. Listeners could now could have their hard drives full of classic songs to soundtrack their every need at the touch of a button. The music industry had spent the entire CD era focused on making us not fans, but consumers. Little wonder, then, that when the floodgates were open, and we were left to our own devices, the consumers consumed as much as they could.

Maybe I was too much of a fan to abandon the CD. Growing up in the suburbs, away from the downtown music scene—one that also that lacked the through-fare of major centres like Toronto or Montreal—the process of being “music fan” was inseparable from the act of “buying CDs”: giving my father a list of albums to bring home to me from the downtown HMV. Finding European import R.E.M. CDs full of b-sides, or ordering Radiohead singles to be shipped from Europe. Rushing to Music World at lunchtime to purchase Kid A the day it came out, which by the next morning was sharply dividing the school hallways.

I became a music fan through the act of purchasing CDs, with all the complications and commitments that entailed. And I was slow to let that go.

So slow, that I skipped becoming an iTunes person altogether.

* * * * *

Last year around this time, I wrote about a panel discussion at Canadian Music Week where analyst Mark Mulligan talked about music’s “transition” generation: the 16-24 year olds who viewed the MP3 (whether on iTunes or BitTorrent) as their primary means of accessing music. The looming concern, though, was what he called the “digital native” generation: teens aged 12-15 who have spent their entire life with music available at the touch of a button. They don’t collect it, except for the sake of putting something on their iPhone. They just expect access.

“Access” is what subscription-based streaming services offer. Instead of purchasing individual albums or singles, you pay a monthly fee that lets you listen to everything in their library, usually by streaming it across the web. Think of it as Netflix for music, with artists and labels getting reimbursed based on how often a song or album is played. And just this week, streaming data is starting to be counted as part of Billboard’s Top 100 singles list. (The Village Voice has a great look at how this is changing the chart’s layout.)

Spotify is the major global player in this game, but it’s not available in Canada yet due to licensing issues. I use Rdio, one of Spotify’s major competitors which just unveiled a major redesign at SXSW last week that, not coincidentally, looks a lot like iTunes. (A sure sign that these streaming services are start to make their move against the industry’s dominant player.) I pay $10 a month, which gives me unlimited web and mobile streaming, as well as the ability to “download” (they call it “sync”) as many track as I want to my iPhone to play offline.

Rdio’s value proposition is simple: for the cost of buying one album a month on iTunes, or ten songs, I have access to as many albums or songs as I want. Though there are many artists and labels skeptical of this model—some clinging to the belief that the mass-profit days of music commerce can be brought back—others believe that it’s the ticket to reconnecting with music purchasers who were lost in the digital revolution.

Like all forms of music commerce, though, Rdio requires some compromises. Among my biggest pet peeves: There’s no gapless playback. The iTunes collection match feature isn’t very precise and requires a lot of editing after the fact. My biggest issue is that its radiostation feature—how you shuffle beyond individual albums or playlists—only just became available for synced songs on your mobile, and you can’t use it to, say, shuffle through all your Gaslight Anthem songs when offline.

But these are all software issues that can be fixed in time. The real risk as a music listener is what Patrick Burkhart hints at with his quote: that when you’re purchasing access instead of content, the content you have access to can change.

It’s one thing to search the Rdio database and find that a certain artist’s work isn’t available yet; that’s to be expected. (Although some of Rdio’s blind spots are confounding at first glance: why on earth is most of the Sloan discography absent, for example?) But it’s another to see seemingly arbitrary or sudden changes to what’s available.

When I joined Rdio, the Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca was available and was added to my collection. Then a couple of weeks ago, when I went to add “Stillness is the Move” to a playlist, it wasn’t available anymore. Lana Del Rey’s independently-released EP? Gone once she signed to Interscope in advance of her full-length. Then there are cases where specific in-demand albums aren’t available, like how most Arcade Fire and Black Keys records are available – except their latest. Sometimes it’s not entire albums, but individual songs, like how half of Back in Black—the hits—is missing, or how New Order’s Substance doesn’t let you pay its version of “Bizarre Love Triangle.”

The tension behind these omissions reflects the dynamic I mentioned above: that some in the industry are skeptical of the subscription business model, and concerned that fair shares aren’t being paid, so they pull certain pieces of content. (Though some clearly see the benefit: Beggar’s Group, for example, gives half of its streaming revenues to artists.) I’ll let others tell that story; I’m more interested in what this dynamic means as a listener, as one of Burkhart’s “collectors.”

* * * * *

Discovering that music you ostensibly controlled has been taken away from you is, indeed, unsettling. And it’s different than, say, when an awesome Prince video that someone posted to YouTube has been pulled. One, Prince’s digital assholedom is common knowledge. But two, that video wasn’t yours. You didn’t categorize it, download it, integrate it into your daily life. You just enjoyed it, briefly.

When we talk about “collecting,” what’s at stake isn’t just the knowledge that something is available for your use/enjoyment whenever you want. It’s about self-curation: bringing songs, movies, artwork and other artifacts into our lives that not only have utility, but speak to who we want to present ourselves as. “Stillness is the Move” is an important song to me: it speaks to my love of the nebulous space where pop ambition meets alternative ethos, to my affection for blurring subcultures in the 2000s. It’s the sort of song I’d play to someone if they asked what kind of music I liked.

In his 2004 Popular Music essay on the contemporary record collector, Roy Shuker looked at how record collecting is tied in with selectivity, with a love of music, and with a desire for social capital. He wrote that the behaviour “presents itself as a core component of individual social identity and a central part of the life cycle.”  So does adopting Rdio as my primary music tool mean that my individual social identity is now subject to change at whim?

That’s one way of looking at it, sure. But there’s a tradeoff: the loss of control is balanced by the extreme thrills of full (if sometimes fleeting) access.

Rdio offers something that previously had only been available to the super rich, or to music journalistic types: the ability to listen to everything that’s new, hot and relevant, right when it’s released, and join the conversation. Even as someone who gets some music sent to me for my work, there’s a rush that I get each Tuesday morning as I log into Rdio to see what new albums and songs are available. Likewise, there’s something amazing about being able to make a playlist for a party, or a road trip, or just for fun, and have decidedly few limits in doing so. I just search, add and play, taking from the vast, gigantic history of recorded music at the touch of a button.

16-year-old me still can’t believe that this sort of thing is even possible. It’s like magic.

Of course, all of this has been possible for a while, just with questionable legality and a lot of work scouring torrent sites. But subscription services make it so easy that their implications are vast. Some have wondered if they mean the death of MP3 blogs, especially as the social features of streaming take over: why would I go scouring the web for what’s new when I have “friends” that I “follow” whose music tastes I can see (and access) right away? Also: why even “collect” music anymore? When I joined Rdio, I copied most of my iTunes collection in my Rdio collection but other than advantages for shuffling, I’m starting to wonder what the point was: the software gathers what I listen to most, puts it right at my fingertips, and then leaves everything else a quick search away. In 10 seconds or less, it’s blasting from my speakers.

Unless, of course, it’s not available.

Which brings me back to answering Burkhart’s question: how do music collectors like me choose between absolute control or the benefits of access? The modern Internet—from Facebook, through to Google, to Amazon—is full of examples where access prevails, and on the surface it would seem foolish to presume music would end up different. But on the other hand, as Simon Firth identified as early as his 1986 essay “Art Versus Technology,” almost every successful music technology has given the listener more control than its predecessor, not less: the reproduction of vinyl, the recording and portability of the cassette, the song selection of the CD, the playlisting and library-ing of the MP3.

Unless, of course, subscription access gives the listener a greater perception of control. And it’s hard to argue with the feeling that comes from paying a small fee for thousands and thousands of songs and albums, with the latest releases that everyone is talking about at your fingertips, or with the ability to quickly

So for now, I choose access. Time will tell if I chose wisely.

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2 responses to “Embracing the complications of music subscription

  1. McNutt, I identified with many of the things you said here, specifically about being a collector and having an attachment/preference to the phsyical CD and the experience of purchasing it. But in the past year, I’ve gradually moved away from it, and Spotify has been a big reason why. It’s iTunes meets Pandora, and it’s allowed me to listen to most of my entire CD collection at work without having to transport the CDs to and from each day. At times it seems too good to be true. It’s still nice to have the CDs at home to play there on a nicer sound system (or in my car), but I’m finally starting to feel that I don’t need to have every CD of every album I like — maybe just the really, really good ones.

    Ken

  2. Hi Ryan,

    I was just reading your blog and find the content great!

    Currently, I am working with a well-known brand to build a vibrant community of local feeds regarding entertainment, fashion and tech news.

    It would be great if you could join our community as we build out this dream team of bloggers for the brand.

    If you would like to learn more about this, please send an email to info@atomicreach.com

    Thanks,
    Annette

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