Over at CNet, Greg Sandoval has a good story up on subscription music services such as the one that Microsoft offers for its Zune devices. They were supposed to be a big deal, but the idea never spawned any breakout hits. Yahoo and others exited the business, Rhapsody and Napster are niche successes at best, and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see Microsoft say bye-bye to it at some point as well. Meanwhile, Apple has sold billions of non-subscription, buy-it-and-own-it song downloads. Yet Greg’s story says that Microsoft and the music industry are still insisting that subscribing to music is a model that makes sense.
Rationally, subscription music seems like it makes sense: It lets you spend $15 to get access to unlimited music, versus spending the same amount or thereabouts to buy one album. But consumers are simply nowhere near as interested as the industry thinks they should be. Greg mentions one factor in his story: The fact that people appear to want to own their music rather than renting it. I think another big factor is copy protection. It’s neatly mandatory for subscription music (eMusic is the only subscription service that doesn’t lock up its tracks). And even if you can live with the notion of DRM, the technologies that have been used to shackle subscription music have proven to be particularly flaky. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Windows Media.)
Another factor: Subscription music is difficult to explain. Especially the part about it going away if you stop subscribing. Buying music is a notion that we all get.
I still know smart people–including some journalists–who think subscription music will catch on eventually. Maybe it will. Right now, though, I think that its ongoing failure is proof that it doesn’t matter how theoretically logical an idea is if it fails to capture the imagination of consumers.