NOISE GATE: Why music subscription services will eventually work

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This is the second instalment of Noisegate, my weekly column on digital music. If you’re interested, then you can find last week’s, as well as future weeks’ columns right here.

This week I’m going to talk about subscription services and mobile phones. With the launch of Nokia’s “Comes with Music” expected this Thursday, and Sony Ericsson’s “PlayNow” service expected soon, too, I thought now would be a good time to muse on whether subscription services will ever really work in the long term.

I think there are two very different schools of thought when it comes to music. The first is that music is art. This point of view is subscribed to by people who consider themselves to be “into music”. They’re the kind of people who never use the default headphones with a device, and own a reasonable stereo system.

This group of people buy music (physically, or digitally) on a regular basis, and most of them don’t listen to the radio much. Many are hardcore file-sharers. They love having a music ‘collection’. I’m going to refer to them in this post as “Group A”.

Secondly, there’s people who consider music to be a “service”. A thing to be enjoyed, but not coveted and worshipped. These are people who listen to the radio a lot, buy songs that are on adverts, and tell people that they’re “going to a gig”, rather than “going to see Band X play”.

These people don’t buy much music, just the occasional compilation. It’s not that they’re not “music fans” – they love getting Mix CDs off their friends, and like listening to music, but they just connect with it in a very different way to people who call themselves “music fans”. I’m going to refer to them in this post as “Group B”.

Subscription services get a lot of bad press. The most common objection is “you don’t get to keep anything”. This is due to the DRM inherent in a subscription service, which, fairly reasonably, stops you listening to tracks if you stop paying your low monthly subscription.

The other main objection is that the catalogue is often incomplete. Most subscription services don’t have all four of the major labels on board, let alone any indie labels. This restricts your choice, and if you’ve got a favourite band, but they’re not included in the service, then you’re screwed. If you like any obscure bands at all, then you’re probably screwed too.

But here’s a fact: Group B vastly outnumbers Group A. Both of the biggest objections to subscription services come straight from Group A – the music fans. Ownership of music is really important to them, and they love finding obscure bands. They also love sharing those discoveries with their Group B friends. But they don’t like subscription services for the – completely fair – objections above.

So why aren’t subscription services taking off? Because everyone who writes about music, and quite a large proportion of geeks in general, are members of group A. These people aren’t served well by subscription services, because their needs are different – they need to own, collect, share and live in music. They slam subscription services at every opportunity.

Group B, on the other hand, are perfect for subscription services. Their music taste tends towards the commercial end of the market, so the stuff they want will almost always be available. They also aren’t so bothered about losing access to music over time, because the enjoyment for them isn’t in the maintenance of a “music collection”, or curating that collection, it’s just singing along to songs that are big at the moment.

By the time the subscription runs out, or the DRM servers get shut off, or they decide to stop paying for whatever reason, Group B will have a new band, or artist that they love. They won’t need to listen to tracks they bought six months ago. The few that they do want to listen to, they’ll probably have on a CD somewhere, or someone will buy it for them.

It goes further than that – the content that comes along with many subscription services – the recommended playlists, suggested tracks, and featured artists – all appeal directly to the Group B music fan. They want to be told what to listen to. They like other people (they often ask Group A people) to tell them what’s good.

Group B don’t often hear about these services though, which is why it’s good that Nokia and Sony Ericsson are bringing a subscription service to mobile phones. They let them get around the Group A “gatekeepers” who control most of the music media, because they can target it directly at the “Group B”ers who wouldn’t otherwise know the service exists.

So that’s why mobile phone-based subscription services are likely to take off, why they’re likely to work, in my opinion. Because they’re not for hardcore music lovers – they’re just a fiver-a-month service for regular people. Just like your phone, like your telly, like your broadband. An all-you-can-eat service, that you can stop at any time.

Purists in Group A will hate this. They’ll gnash their teeth and stomp and complain that music is art, it’s not a commodity. Well, as Stuart from My Chemical Toilet just reminded me, there’s long been a debate about “disposable” pop music. A debate about music made for commercial reasons instead of artistic reasons.

Don’t worry, Group A. Your favourite band, who make music for art’s sake, probably aren’t even available on these services. Subscription services won’t stop new bands making music for the love of it either. There’ll always be the commercial end of the spectrum and the artistic end. Occasionally there’ll be bands that manage to straddle both. Your favourite band isn’t ever going to get massive, but would you really want them to? It just means they’ll stop recognising you at the gigs, and everyone will be wearing the T-shirt.

More people are listening to more music than ever before in the history of the human race. Subscription services will help people who listen to less music listen to more music, and they’ll enjoy it. Those “Group B”ers might even become members of Group A themselves, thanks to it.

If Nokia and Sony Ericsson, or Napster, or eMusic, or anyone else running a subscription music service, manage to get more people to listen to more music, then it’ll be a success. It might even save the recorded music industry. I’m confident that it will eventually happen. It’s just going to take a while.

Agree? Disagree? Do you have a favourite subscription service? Would you never use one in a million years? Am I pigeonholing people too much? Drop us a comment, and speak your brains.

Related posts: More Digital Music stories | More Noise Gate

Duncan Geere

2 comments

  • We already have a subscription system that works, it just needs to be expanded upon in my opinion.

    The TV License.

    Now, if the TV License was to become an ‘AV License’ (which it technically already is because of radio) we’d all be paying an upfront fee for whatever we then consume for the year regardless of what we do with it.

    With the TV License I can watch, listen to, record, burn, transfer and share content all because everybody involved has already paid at the point of purchase for the HARDWARE to then consume that content on.

    It’s a tried and tested subscription system that has worked for decades on TV. With a bit of fleshing out of the rules, the benefactors and likely a hike in the cost, why wouldn’t it here?

    • But then surely only the BBC would be permitted to provide the service (not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that)?

      Also, my Grandma pays for a TV license, but I’m sure she’s not that bothered about pop music. What about the people who don’t need a music subscription, but still like their TV?

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