The Superbowl premier of Napster’s “Napster to go” service raises some interesting technophilosophical questions. The Napster to go service offered at $14.95 is an expanded version of the $9.95 PC only version, if you want to take the songs “to go” on select portable MP3 players. While I think the 50% price increase to allow portability is a bit excessive, the concept of the service is very intriguing to me. Is media ownership an antiquated phenomenon or because I’m a bit more rational than other net minds who decry everything that isn’t bleeding edge as hopelessly outdated, is ownership so ingrained into the American psyche that services such as Napster to go will never dominate the marketplace? Owning a song certainly doesn’t carry the same cultural attachments that owning a car or a house does, but there is still a strong attachment to the philosophy behind ownership of any kind.
There are two ideas people need to accept for a music service like this to work: 1.) Physical ownership isn’t important, use ownership is what matters 2.) Renting, given certain parameters, is better than owning. The second idea is less of a problem than the first. Many people are very content leasing cars one after another and most people rent movies instead of buying everything they want to see. However, renting music is different in some important regards. Music is something that you want to enjoy over and over again, most likely more times than you want to watch a movie (unless it’s Episode V or The Matrix), and any particular song isn’t going to change over time (i.e. if you like it enough to buy now, you’ll probably like it in ten years and it isn’t going to get any different), unlike a car which gets old and doesn’t have the same features as new models. So, while Napster to go is a terrific investment for any given month, its value as a service decreases somewhat when you string many months together.
For example, I am 23 years old and I plan on enjoying music for at least the next 50 years until say, I lose my hearing at which point I will only watch game shows at full volume. If you take the average price of a CD to be $15 and times that by 12 months and 50 years you rapidly see that I could either subscribe to a music rental service for the rest of my listening life or I could buy 600 CD’s, or some combination of CD’s and downloaded one-hit-gotta-haves, but you get the point. This is probably more music than I will ever care to own, but for others it may not be. The benefits of renting are great short term, I get access to the new music I like plus the huge back catalogue of old stuff right now instead of when I’m 73. But, when I’m fifty and my musical tastes change by about 1 CD’s worth of new music a year the bargain has become a bad one. I now have to pay $15 a month in order to keep listening to the same things I’ve been listening too for years because if I stop I won’t have any music at all. At that point the music rental people will have me trapped and I will be their loyal consumer for life. Unless I’ve increased my music budget and have been buying the CD’s of the stuff that I really like that I’ve rented, but it kind of defeats the purpose of renting if you spend more money than you would have just buying the stuff.
I used to subscribe to Netflix and will start subscribing to Blockbuster Online soon because I like the in store rental option. While this service is similar there are some important differences. There are many more movies made each year that I want to see than I can afford to buy, this is less true for me than with music. Secondly, I only want to see many movies once. I watch a lot of documentaries, and Cane Toads, while good, isn’t the kind of thing you watch over and over. So, these services in combination with movie theaters allow me to see many movies that I would like to see once or twice and purchase the few that I want to add to my collection. The math doesn’t work out for me with music the way it does with movies, but for others, it might. Ownership just makes more sense for me in the long run than rental at this price point, but that math might change later.
The second problem–lack of physical ownership–is not the difference between a digital copy and a physical one. Quality issues and data longevity issues can be put aside. People know that when they are buying music, as when they are buying most things, they are not buying limitless use privileges. There are many readily accepted provisions to media ownership. You can’t broadcast it or sell it just like you can’t rally race a car you own around the local pre-school playground. (Note to RIAA: please don’t use that analogy in your next anti-piracy commercial) However, people do take for granted that their use of media is compatible with many platforms and many settings. When you buy a CD you can listen to it on any CD player in the world and you can convert the songs into MP3’s that can be played on any digital music player. When you get a music rental service you are buying into a single platform with much more limited portability. You can listen to the music you get from Napster to go at your home computer or on a limited number of portable devices. If you don’t own one of these you have to buy one. While it is reasonable to assume that as technology advances and time passes the possible options for playback of rented media will increase it is also safe to say that their playback will always carry an extra cost and will have less portability than traditionally owned media. Currently CD’s are playable on anything that plays CD’s and the MP3’s that you make from them are playable on anything that plays MP3’s. Rented music will only ever be playable on whatever device can handle the particular DRM of your rental service and whatever you can connect your portable player or home computer to. While this portability may someday rival the portability of physical ownership it can’t ever surpass it and currently falls far short and is essentially damning.
Interestingly both problems and the success of rentable music rely on one central paradigm shift; people have to be willing to switch from buying music to buying a system of listening to music. When you buy pure media (CD’s, records, downloaded songs, etc.) you create a potential market for companies to sell you ways to listen to that music (CD players, MP3 players, etc.) this breads competition and allows you to choose which means of listening to your music is the best choice for you. When you rent music you make both your music choices–what to buy and how to listen to it–at the same time. You remove yourself from the free market in a direct sense. You now have access to the music you want but you can only listen to it through means that the company you rent from has approved. Other companies will compete for the ability to play the music you’ve rented, but they aren’t really competing for your business, they’re competing for the business of the company to which you’ve tied yourself. Your music listening experience will be maximized by making your two choices–what to buy and how to listen to it–independently.
When I started writing this article I thought I would be coming down on the side of music rental as the eventual, although not current ideal solution to my and other people’s music needs. What I realized, however, is that I think of music like I think of most data. The form I get it in isn’t important, what’s important is that I can get to it when I want to and wherever I want to within limits. Renting isn’t the problem. Physical ownership isn’t the problem. The problem is having to listen to music on someone else’s terms and not my own.