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.