On iTunes, Napster, and eMusic, Among Others

Tis the season of digital music services. Everyone is launching now, with more to come (Amazon too?), and likely special deals around shopping time.  Things to think about regarding the growing diversity of services (including, but not exclusively about, DRM):

Mary says Rhapsody‘s close.  There is a lot to like about it – decent size catalog, one subscription price for complete access, fun radio stations, nice interface (supposedly – I haven’t seen much of it).  But there’re also a lot of downsides – no downloads in the present system (they’re shifting away from a streams only model soon), no movement to portable devices, costs more money to burn a track. (See here for details.)

Napster is improving on this model in some ways (see their fact sheet as well as this great review by Brad Hill), but there are still potential problems. Napster allows “tethered” downloads (lasting as long as your subscription) and is going to add some portability, but you need to resync every month and you can only port to “approved devices”.  Burns (and permanent downloads through their a la carte pricing) cost 99 cents as opposed to Rhapsody’s 79 cents.

I wonder: will people ultimately take to forfeiting ownership of their music in this way? Whether consumers will ever be willing to switch from free is an open question, but at least we know that at some point consumers did regularly pay for their music. They’ve never really had to pay for space-shifting their CDs, and getting locked into “approved devices” might be a nuisance. And they’ve never had to worry about their “tethered” downloads disappearing if they decide that a record store is offering a better deal – not a perfect analogy in fact, but perhaps in psychological terms.

Or is this movement away from ownership a step forward towards the celestial jukebox? You sign up, you get everything, for life, from one place, wherever you are. Rhapsody and Napster aren’t there yet, but they’re closer. Perhaps, in the future, we’ll get a lot of approved devices so there’s enough consumer flexibility, and burns will stop costing money, or we’ll move towards more iPod-like (or wireless enabled) devices so that burns don’t matter.

In some ways, these subscription services feel like a step towards  the celestial jukebox because they feel more like P2P.  Napster certainly seems to think that’s the key – note how they let you see other people’s music libraries.  Like P2P, you experience each download/stream at no additional cost.

However, looked at another way, the a la carte models have many advantages similar to P2P.  Your choice to download a song involves nothing else but thinking about that one song; there’s no need to think whether 10 bucks a month is reasonable in the long run.  Subscription services also annoy the short-term focused consumer with the burning restrictions. Though BuyMusic.com is still lagging behind, iTunes and Napster have both figured out that matching the simplicity of P2P means having one uniform set of use restrictions. (Footnote: Napster also provides a “sync/restore” function, unlike iTunes, which only allows one download.)

Napster’s using both models is pretty intriguing. I’ll be very interested to see their purchase rate from each type and how those rates change when iTunes moves to Windows.

It’s too bad we won’t get to see if the eMusic model could pan out on a larger scale – at least not until someone is bold enough to resurrect it. They’re still using MP3, and the 65 downloads for 15 bucks is  cheaper than any other a la carte service. But it’s now not really an all-you-can-listen service, and, for the months where nothing you want to download comes out, it might look weaker than the other subscription services.

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