Is the Concept of owning your Music Collection Outdated?

The way we consume music has changed a lot in my lifetime. I remember saving up my pocket money as a kid so I could go to the record shop and buy the latest 45 that had captured my attention. Ah records, 45s, that’s dating me.

I’d continue to buy records for the most part because of their quality, but would make compilations using my high quality Denon cassette deck with three heads, after all, wasn’t it Shakespeare who said that three heads were better than two? I’d then play these tapes on my Sony Walkman when I was out and about.

Then the CD came along. A few purists held out and said that you couldn’t beat good old vinyl, but most of us adopted the CD pretty quickly. I didn’t miss the needle being stuck in the groove and records getting increasingly crackly, nor did I miss cassettes being twisted or worn out over time.

I still made compilations on my Denon cassette deck with three heads, but they became used less frequently once I got a CD walkman, a Minidisc player, and ultimately an MP3 player.

My first MP3 player was an iRiver, with a 20GB physical hard drive running special firmware called Rockbox which offered limited text-to-speech functionality. For its time, it really did rock.

I first ripped some of my CD collection in 1996, when I had a computer with a massive 15GB of space. The ripping took forever, and the encoding was as slow as an elevator at a blindness convention. However the CD was still the source of all this material. Whether you bought it yourself, or whether, as some people did, you …borrowed from a friend, the MP3 file started with the purchase of a CD.

The game changed again with the arrival of the iTunes Store, and services like it. When the electronic purchase came along, a few purists held out and said that you couldn’t beat having something to hold in your hands, having a thing that lived on a shelf. Most people said a resounding “bah” to that and CD sales declined quickly. Other purists made what is in my view a more compelling argument, which is that music was being sold in a lossy format, so what you were purchasing didn’t sound as good as the CD. This has been somewhat addressed by the use of newer and better lossy formats such as AAC, and a few options exist to purchase music in lossless format.

So here we are. The majority of us now purchase music by electronic means. But I think we’re on the cusp of another big change.

I think we can thank Netflix for what’s happening to music consumption now. The Netflix model of paying a flat fee for all the movies and TV shows you can consume has become insanely popular. It’s being emulated by competitors, and in interesting spaces like fashion, where services now exist that let you rent a wardrobe and exchange clothing as often as you want.

For a while, we’ve had access to services like Pandora, and iTunes Radio is competing in this space. These are free services with premium options, that let you stream music based on artist or genre. If you give these services an artist, you’ll get music by the artist you specified assuming the service in question has music by the artist, but you also get artists that the service thinks are similar. You can train these services over time to learn about your preferences.

These services I think are more of a threat to traditional Internet radio than anything else, but they’re an adjunct to your music collection that is quite complementary. Often you can be introduced to a new album or artist, and click through to make the purchase on your electronic store of choice. So Pandora and iTunes Radio are not the paradigm shift I’m talking about.

The real shift is happening with Spotify, and services like it.  Spotify is to music what Netflix is to TV and movies. By paying a monthly subscription that costs less than a currently charting album on iTunes, you’re effectively renting a huge music collection, currently numbering over 20 million songs. You can download as much music as you want for listening offline, say when on a plane that doesn’t offer Wi-Fi or when you are on a bus and don’t want to use all your mobile data. Those songs will continue to play on your mobile device as long as you keep paying the monthly fee.

It gets even better though! Last week, Spotify introduced more free options on mobile devices. If you use Spotify on a phone, you can now type in the name of an artist, and get a shuffled playlists of songs only buy that artist. No Pandora or iTunes-Radio-style tweaking to get artists you don’t like out of the mix. If all you want to hear is Lord, then type in her name and Lord is all you get. That said, there are ways to emulate the iTunes Radio/Pandora-style experience too.

If you use a tablet, it’s even more amazing. The free Spotify now allows you to type in the name of a specific song, and play it in full.

So if you can do all that for free, why would you pay the subscription? There are three reasons that I can see. First, you get an ad-free experience. Second, as I mentioned previously, you can download as much music as you want and not be dependent on an Internet connection to play it. Third, the audio is served at a higher bit rate, so it sounds better.

Over the years, I’ve bought literally thousands of albums. My music collection is extensive. But if I were my kids’ age, would I bother buying music anymore? I don’t think so. I just don’t see the economic or technical justification for it anymore.

For me there is also the technical matter of how one would integrate a service like Spotify into my Internet radio broadcasting, but that’s not going to be an issue for many people. If software like StationPlaylist could somehow integrate your Spotify subscription into their apps, imagine what a game changer that would be for fulfilling requests.

Apple seemingly knows the writing is on the wall for music purchases in the medium-term. They’re investing a lot in iTunes radio, hoping to ramp up sales revenues and extend its reach to new markets outside the US. I would think they’re also very keen to have more flexible agreements with the music labels such as those enjoyed by Spotify.

So the game is in the process of changing again. In five years, I think people who want to actually own a music file will be in the minority.

Have you switched from owning to renting your music, or is it something you think has serious disadvantages? What services are you enjoying and how is the experience working out for you? Leave your views in the comments.

17 Comments

  1. Eric G

    While I am not a subscriber to Spotify, I do use Slacker premium as well as the free version of Pandora. I, too have lived long enough to witness the transformation from physical to electronic media and am glad for it. Gone are the days, nostalgic as they are to think about, of waiting for hours to record songs from the radio and of laboring to make mix tapes for your friends and/or significant other. I am also happy that one need no longer to purchase an entire album for the single or two he or she really wants most. Granted, unknown tracks can be discovered through an album purchase, but, now that tracks can be previewed before purchase, the buyer can still discover great unheard music and choose whether or not to acquire it individually or to go all-in on an album.

    However, I still buy some songs as a show of artist support. I also know that no trend or service lives forever, and it is comforting to have the songs I truly cherish and know I will always want for the remainder of my life, as well as passing along to my children, to be on physical media (e.g., backed up to a hard drive).

  2. Mike Cole

    Another old guy here, so far I’m not grateful for the new renting, downloading, and for that matter music on the go. Thinking broadly, people used to get together and sing, play instruments, etc. Piano rolls were very popular for those who could afford a piano. Records, then tapes, A.M. radio in the car, our record choices were programmed through the radio; the recording industry hated it that we could make our own tapes. It’s unfortunate that CD’s aren’t as durable as they could have been, that they were probably more expensive than was necessary, but I very much enjoy CD’s. See my music listening is different. I never walk around listening to music. I would never shuffle play music. I always have a purpose listening to music. My major musical interests are classical and jazz where I have specific mood-determined preferences, so for example, if I want to listen to Sonny Rollins, then that’s who I wish to hear, and when I’m done hearing him, I’m often done listening to music. I will miss being able to make a tape or CD for you. Remember hi fi? We tried to maximize the sound quality; often record labels weren’t much help, but with music services, the idea of listening to eras or songs is institutionalized, played in some kind of order. But not so much for me. I have lately made a bunch of MP3 files of music I like and our car enables you to plug in a thumb drive and play them. Yay, I thought, I found a use for these things. Well, the CD changer provides the same access. My adult kids ride along with their phone streaming away, kind of radio without commercials, which isn’t bad, but it’s really not how I listen. All those MP3’s are for me just so much redundancy. When a cable company says, you will have 300 channels or a music service says they have ten million songs, I find I’m not impressed. Oh I think it’s interesting how these things have developed, but that I can choose to listen, without too much trouble, to any one of a million songs, well, I’ve not subscribed to any music service yet. Am I fighting change? Probably there’s some of that going on, but I like the idea of you coming to visit and we sit down and check out music of mutual interest on pretty good speakers. Ear Buds and MP3’s? They play a secondary role for certain.

    • Jonathan Mosen

      This was a really interesting comment Mike, but i would challenge a few of the assumptions.
      I find the way music is being distributed now very social. For example, when we have friends over to dinner, we all have iPhones that control the music coming out of the Apple TV through use of the Remote app on each phone. The Apple TV is connected to a fantastic home theatre system and it sounds really good. We all get a kick out of everyone who has come over for dinner being able to add music to the queue. No one knows what’s coming next, and it’s a blast hearing the next song and guessing which one of us added it to the queue.
      There is an equivalent of doing a mixed tape for a friend, and that is the Spotify playlist. You can create one and give it to an individual, or share it on Twitter.
      With Spotify, you can listen to a complete album, just as if you owned the CD. It’s just that you have a bigger number of albums from which to choose than we could ever have imagined possible.
      It’s a big change, but I don’t think we’ve lost anything.

  3. Lindon Walker

    I remember when I started in radio about thirty years ago. we had a room on the third floor of an older building that had so much vinal that the floor had to be reinforced because of the weight. there may have been twenty thousand albums in that room. problem was only two to three hundred of those made it into the studio and in turn on air. obviously, that was the norm thirty years ago for the day. tightly formatted playlists of the same hot one hundred songs. that was and definitely, still is US commercial radio of today. the narrow casting of music is continuing today but in a more suttle way with music services like pandora, ITunes Radio and Spotify.
    I still wonder if having twenty million songs available isn’t just another way for persohns to tune out even more that which seems a little different but is still great to listen too. afterall, it would be difficult for me to come up with enough time in my life to listen to even one one hundredth of twenty million songs: and yet I’m sure I’m missing something truly wonderful by not taking time to do that. so Jonathan and anyone else that’s your job. starting now, i challenge anyone to listen to one one hundredth of twenty million songs. since I like math that would be two hundred thousand songs which should take the rest of your life and those songs you don’t get to maybe your children can finish, start listening!
    in summary, what’s the point in having twenty million songs available if no one is ever going to have a need or desire to listen to even a very small percentage of them. then comes the question of how does a new artest get discovered?

    • Jonathan Mosen

      Hi Lindon, yes like you, I’ve done radio where, even when you’re not catering to the hot 100 format, there are only ever a few hundred songs in the rotation at any one time.
      I think Pandora and iTunes Radio are a step forward in this regard. Because they have such large collections from which to choose, you can be introduced to artists you never heard before. iTunes Radio has a cool setting which you can adjust with each station you create, that determines how eclectic you want the station to be. This is a nice touch.
      Digital distribution means an artist that captures the public’s imagination can bypass the traditional music business execs altogether and go straight to the people. In short, I think it’s easier for newer artists to get discovered than ever, just as it’s easy for anyone to self-publish a book than ever.
      Yes, you could only listen to a fraction of 20 million songs, but the size of the collection means that you may well be exposed to material that will broaden your horizons. With traditional commercial radio, that will rarely happen.

  4. Gordon Luke

    This must be the first time in my life that I’ve actually adopted a service before you Jonathan!!! I’ve been a Spotify user now for just under two years and I love it. To me there are two major benefits:

    1. Economic. I have a teenage daughter who is typical of her kind in that she loves her music and she loves to take it on the move with her. Thus the £10 a month for a premium Spotify membership is less than the outlay I was putting out in downloads and/or CDs. On top of that she can let her musical taste wonder and try new artists. We have special nights where we sit together and intertwine the new tunes/artists we’ve both found and enjoy.

    2. Sound Quality. Now this one may surprise people given the comments above. As a hi-fi purist and long time bore on the subject I’d have to agree that given a red hot vinyl system with fabulous cartridge, arm, pre-amp, power amp and electrostatic speakers then it won’t compare – but CD wouldn’t either. I’ve implemented my Spotify account into a hi-fi separates product from Sonos. My mid-range hi-fi system is made mostly by the hi-fi specialists Linn – it’s not the best in their range – but it’s certainly not the worst. When sitting down and doing a listening test by comparing a track played through Spotify and the same track simultaneously played from my Linn CD player I’m struggling to tell the difference. This has really worried me as I could always tell before with the CD player trouncing anything I threw at it. Perhaps I’m getting old and my ears aren’t up the job any more but the truth is now – I rarely listen to CDs.

    I should also add that with Sonos for example you can also hook it into your own Network drives and get it to play anything from there. This gets round the issue of those artists who are not signed up to Spotify or who’s material is so unique it will never appear. You can also stream internet radio too. One other really cool service you can sign up to with Sonos is that of Wolfsgan Vault. This lets you stream concerts in their entirety into your living room. Just the other night I enjoyed the late Harry Chapin from 1974 – just fantastic.

    So on the move Spotify to me does the business and at home when listening to music is taken seriously Sonos with Spotify does the trick.

  5. Sam

    I was using the Rhapsody website before the iPhone included a screen reader. Back then they would let you listen to 25 tracks for free per month which usually let you get through at least one album. You could create an account and play 25 tracks logged into your account and 25 tracks not logged in. I ended up purchasing a subscription when they started to have accessibility issues and I wanted my requests to receive attention. They have since resolved the issues and I find the iOS app to be very accessible. The website still has a few issues. The way I like to use Rhapsody is to preview new artists or albums prior to purchase. If I want an album, I’ll download it until I purchase it so I can listen to it outside the service. There is a rock critic talk show on Chicago Public Radio called Sound Opinions which uses a “buy it, burn it, trash it” rating system for evaluating albums. I have a slightly different personal rating system: “lossless/CD, lossy, wouldn’t pay for it, wouldn’t even download it.” For example, I don’t feel that I need the song “The Fox” by Ylvis in lossless format. I did, however, end up purchasing the track in order to make a ringtone.

  6. Missy Hoppe

    This is a really thought provoking article. I’ve always preferred physical media, only because I feel as though I’m getting something for my money. Another advantage to physical media is that you don’t have to worry about data corruption or hardware failure wiping out your music collection.

    On the other side of the coin, however, having one’s entire music library in digital format saves a ton of storage space. After my most recent move, I have become seriously overwhelmed by the prospect of unpacking and organizing my 1000 or so CD’s, and am seriously tempted to invest in a couple of 2-3 TB hard drives to store everything on in as high a quality as possible. The only reason I haven’t gone that route yet is because my home theater system is so antiquated that I’d wouldn’t be able to listen to music on it unless I was using CD’s.

    While I haven’t tried to use spotify too much yet, I love Pandora and ITunes radio. I’ve discovered all kinds of interesting music with these services, but more often than not, I then feel compelled to find and purchase CD’s. I guess I just like the ability to hear a specific song by a specific artist whenever the mood strikes, and so far, I haven’t had that ability with the current music services.

    The whole way we listen to music is definitely evolving, though, and I have a feeling that it won’t be too much longer before physical media isn’t even an option any more. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens and try to adapt as the world moves forward.

  7. Eva

    I started using the only such service available here in Germany for a time some 3 years ago but stopped quickly as I never figured out how to play a certain song that I fancied hearing. I even forgot what the service was called. Then I heard about Spotify and installed the program on my PC, only to find that a certain Swedish album I was curious about wasn’t available on Spotify Germany. I usually listen to music on the PC, playing either a radio show or any song or album I fancy listening to at a particular moment. I finally got said Swedish album, can play it whenever I like. Some albums I couldn’t buy as downloads, had to purchase CDs and rip them to make them available on my PC. So, if the services do away with restrictions concerning music from certain countriies, and if I can listen to anything I like on the go, I might decide to use such a service instead of paying for downloads every time I want new music. But still, it’s sometimes quite interesting to go through my music collection and find stuff there that I haven’t heard for ages, something that is not very likely to happen without actually owning the music, because the automatic selection wouldn’t necessarily pick that.

  8. Sara HillisSara Hillis

    I think I can comment on both sides of this issue, or maybe on three or four sides.

    The first two sides I can speak to are owning versus renting music. I agree with the person who said that no trneding service lasts forever, and in that way, it would be much bettter to own one’s music outright in case the subscription service or services all went down due to some other kind of cultural shift, which let’s face it, are coming faster and faster these days. I too recall making mixed tapes from the radio, waiting with my finger on the record button to catch an interview with an artist I really wanted to hear, hunting through stations and just happening to come across a tiny littlw low-power station which happened to have a Celtic music show on at exactly the time that I happened to be flipping around the dial. That was magocal!

    Well, although those days are gone forever seemingly, and although most of my music nowadays is not on cds anymore, I still have them and will finish ripping them someday. 🙂 I do still like iTunes itself. I preview an album and can choose to buy it, and the cost isn’t that much. Of course, I completely understand the appeal of Spotify and services like it to someone with teenagers! That actually makes a lot of sense to me. 🙂

    The other thing I wanted to say is what this trend on renting music can do to the artist producing it. I’m not talking record companies, but presumably they’d be hit as well if this pay-per-play royalty system becomes the only way that people get their music in the furutre. As an independent artist, I have subscribed to iTunes and other stores via a broker. This broker charges me a subscription fee every year based on the number of albums I have released and the number of online stores they’re in. In return, I get to keep all of my share of my sales, rather than passing on a portion of them to the broker. For iTunes, this amounts to about 67 cents on the dollar. So far, so good. This is over 50 percent of the sales that iTunes allows me to keep. Of course they take a cut. That’s alright.

    Now, in contrast, when someone streams my music on any of these stores, and I think it’s this way on Spotify as well, and I am supposed to be on it though I’ve never found myself yet, I get about 3 cents per stream. This would be fine if I were being played by a lot of people around the world. In some ways, I suppose this renting of music could level the playing field, especially if you can completely personalize the service to let you hear exactly what you want to hear. If you like all indie artists, then you’d be able to help them out by playing their music exclusively, though I suppose you’d have to do so 24/7 to really give them the money that their recording sales are meant to give them.

    I suppose that the only way for indie artists to survive if music ceases to be a commodity in the true sense, at least as far as the internet is concerned, would be to really go back to basics. Perform as much as possible, market themselves as a face-to-face purchasing option, sell actual cds to those people who still do need to hold something in their hand, (and I can tell you from experience that those people still do exist,) and use the internet more as a marketing tool only.

    I for one hope that this time is yet far off, but I suppose it’s our job to change with the times or else be left behind.

  9. Jay

    Very well done and thought provoking post. I grew up with both records and cassettes and I actually didn’t mind waiting hours to record a song from the radio. If I got really frustrated, I would call and request and usually would get my song. I also use to purchase extended 2 hour long cassettes and copy 1 album to each side from my brothers newly aquired cds! I had to pray that the recording would finish before he got home so I could hightail it out of his room! And wow you can actually skip songs. I use to think that holding down the fast forward button would damage the cd because of the sound it made.
    I started an mp3 collection in 2000 or so ripping my own cds. It’s now backed up on at least 3 hard drives at all times. For me, encoding music at 128kbps is the perfect balance between space saving and audio quality although I’m sure others will disagree. I am both a musician and composer so you’d think I would want better sound but for some reason I have always stuck with that bitrate. I know there are better sounding more compressed formats out there like ogg but when I discovered that, my collection was already quite large and didn’t feel like reencoding everything and maybe getting errors. I also love mp3 because everything under the sun can play it these days.
    I don’t purchase much music anymore since I personally think todays music seen leaves something to be desired. When I do however, I stick with amazon mp3 because there’s no file conversion to be done and I could easily add albums to my collection.
    I know this would never happen but I would love a monthly subscription service that would let you download an unlimited or certain number of full albums in mp3 to go along with streaming. Yes, I realize that unfortunately the threat of piracy would deter a company from doing such a thing but come on, the music industry isn’t begging for money these days.
    If I would resubscribe to a service again, it would have to be rhapsody. I’ve been on and off with them since 2006, selection is great and the ios accessibility, accessibility on the pc with some trial and error and the ability to easily browse and listen to individual songs/albums as well as download said material works for me. If you want playlists and radio you can have them but if you just wanna browse/listen you can have that too.

  10. Chris Swank

    I enjoy playing with Pandora and Jango and such, but I mainly use them to hear things I haven’t heard before, trying to find the most oddball music to see if they have it. But I don’t think I would want to depend entirely on such services because they seem to be song-oriented, that is, playing individual isolated songs randomly. Me, I grew up with albums and most of the music I still enjoy was meant to be heard as part of an album, not as a single, so I still like my physical media, even if it is outmoded or uncool. With a lot of the music I like, the album connected all the songs by a loose concept or told a story. If anything, if there was no theme, you got a snapshot of what a band was doing during a particular time frame. I don’t want to hear just the songs everybody else voted as the most popular in condensed form to fit shorter attention spans.

  11. James O'Dell

    I was a cassette man to begin with, then CD, then minidisc (don’t ask) and then MP3, although I admit to being a light downloader. Like other commenters, I think I would be prepared to consider subscribing to a service that was guaranteed to be around and accessible (in both senses of the term) long into the future, or to one that offered me some sort of ‘get out clause’ whereby I would have the opportunity to download a certain number of my favourite songs/albums for free or transfer them (including my playlist data) to another service if the service were to cease to exist, backed by insurance of some kind. But this whole arena is so uncertain (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/aug/01/spotify-pandora-streaming-music-profits) that there are not and perhaps can never be such guarantees. Even Spotify has had to reinvent itself on multiple occasions with different pricing models. Napster in the UK had a similar paid service to the current Spotify that a number of people I know used, but it closed down when they were taken over by Rapsidy and that was that! After that, they did briefly have an unlimited streaming service which also offered download credits, which was very good value, but it disappeared pretty quickly so was probably more of a promotion than anything else. Like it or not, accessibility with screen readers is also an important issue. The last thing I would want to do is invest in a subscription service that suddenly becomes inaccessible, even for a period of time, and thus be locked out from accessing my music. The bottom line for me at the moment is that I want to have my own copy of the music I want to listen to, rather than rent someone else’s in full knowledge that they can take it away at any time, no matter for how long I have been paying for it.

  12. Chris Swank

    The cool thing about owning your music is that you paid once, got that CD or other media in your paws, and it was absolutely and completely yours. No embedded code in the data to erase it after so many plays, no subscription or rental fees, this was your! own! copy! There was something to be said about taking your physical media home and taking off the shrink wrap and opening it up and hearing it for the first time too.

  13. Matt Campbell

    The idea of not owning my music collection, and consequently not having to maintain it (ID3 tagging, keeping up to date with codec technology, keeping lossless files for archival but using lossy formats on portable devices, etc.) is appealing. But the dark side of services like Spotify is that these companies become gatekeepers. They determine what their customers can listen to, and the terms on which artists can get exposure and get paid. I don’t like that, just on principle. I want to be able to discover an independent musician, by word of mouth, a web link, social media, or whatever other means, buy that musician’s work directly, know that the musician will get paid fairly, and listen to that music the same way I listen to the mainstream music I’ve collected. I can do that as long as I own my music collection, and I indeed do that from time to time. So that’s why I stay away from Spotify and the like. For listening to a song just once or twice on an impulse, I use YouTube.

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