Microsoft Tries to Make Subscription Music Sound Sexy. Or at Least Smart.

By  |  Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 12:47 am

I feel really sorry for the companies, such as Real (with its Rhapsody service), Best Buy (with Napster), and Microsoft (with Zune Pass) that sell subscription music services. Rationally, subscription music makes perfect sense: You pay one monthly rate and get access to the service’s entire library. You can gorge all you want, and if you download an album that turns out not to tickle your fancy, you’ve only wasted a little time.

But none of these services have caught on with the American public on an emotional level–certainly not enough to make them into viable threats to the dominance of Apple’s iPod and iTunes. Apple’s sold billions of songs through iTunes, even though the price of a single album can be the same as other services’ monthly all-you-can-eat flat fee. Every time a consumer downloads a song, it’s a vote in favor of owning music rather than renting it.

Every once in awhile, an Apple competitor tries to make subscriptions sound sexy–or at least smart–via advertising. The latest example is this new Microsoft ad for Zune Pass:

Of course, as Ars Technica notes, Wes Moss–who’s a real guy–does blithely ignore the crucial distinction between digital music’s subscription and buy-to-own variants. Stop paying Microsoft your $14.99 a month, and all your music goes away, but the 99 cents you blow on an iTunes track makes it yours to keep. On the other hand, Moss also doesn’t mention a notable virtue of Zune Pass: the monthly fee lets you keep ten songs. So at least he’s glossing over important facts in a balanced fashion.

An odder thing about the ad: While it shows an iPod, It doesn’t even mention the Zune explicitly. Unless you’re paying reasonably close attention to the digital music wars, it might be unclear to you that what Microsoft is suggesting is that you go out and buy a hardware device called a Zune. I’m not sure if this is intentional on the company’s part–it may be sick of people making fun of its poor little audio player–or what.

Despite everything, Microsoft has a point here: Anyone who’s considering buying a music player should at least consider whether buying one that supports subscriptions is a smarter move than springing for an iPod. (I suspect I’m in the same camp as a lotta folks, though–I’d switch from buying music to subscribing it in a heartbeat…if you could do so and still own an iPod or iPhone.)

I have my doubts, though, whether Microsoft’s subscription salesmanship will find much more success than that of this old Napster ad, which makes the same point in a radically different fashion, stylewise:


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24 Comments For This Post

  1. Geo Says:

    With site/software like Deezer, Spotify or, music subscription is dead.

    Customers discovers music through these services, then if they like it, buy a CD or buy the song on Amazon/iTunes.

  2. Peter Hickman Says:

    The thing that you fail to point out as another weakness of the subscription model is the service shutting down! This has happened enough times for it to be a major issue. In fact I believe that Microsoft itself tried to shut down one of it’s music services.

    Or they keep increasing the subscription in a boiled frog type way.

  3. Harry McCracken Says:

    @Peter: Good point, and one that I should have mentioned. Especially now that iTunes music is DRM-free.


  4. Tim Robertson Says:

    Good points. But the main reason I would never move out of the iTunes ecosystem is just that, iTunes. It is by far the best software to organize and store your music. Very mature software with roots going back to 1998.

  5. AntDaddy Says:

    “Stop paying Microsoft your $14.99 a month, and all your music goes away” This is not true. Zune Pass lets you download 10 songs a month with no DRM restrictions.

  6. Bobman Says:

    There are alternatives. I seriously considered buying in to Rhapsody or (shudder) Microsoft Zune, but then I found Lala (

    You can listen to all the music in their library for free *once*. After that it is a 30-second promo of the song. If you want to listen to it more, it is $0.10 per track. If you want to buy it (and download it) it is the same tiered pricing structure of iTunes, less the $0.10 you already paid.

    The downside? It assumes you will always stream your music. If you buy any tracks they are downloaded as mp3 so you can archive them with the rest of your mp3 library, but they are really geared towards people streaming all the time. For $0.10 per track, it works for me!

  7. Vulpine Says:

    Probably one of the biggest points for purchasing over ‘renting’ is this: if you already own your music, you can move it to whatever device you own. the Zune commercial mentions that you would need to spend $30,000 to fill your iPod. Well? What about all those tapes you own? What about that huge library of CDs? Hey! What about your vinyl? All that can be imported to your iPod as well… and you already own the music!

    I don’t deny that with Zune Pass you can keep 10 songs per month… that’s $1.50/song, which is still higher than the average iTunes track. Where’s the savings?

  8. Paul Judd Says:


    Please Re-read Harry’s article – he mentions just what you point out (though even the ad fails to mention). However this is neither here nor there since the ad was touting subscription music in which you do not get to keep after canceling the subscription. Essentially you pay 15 bucks to keep 10 songs. Not something I would really talk about…

  9. Paul Judd Says:


    I believe it was Mapster years ago that tried the same tactic in their advertising against the 20 gig iPod implying that it would cost $20,000 to fill their big iPod ignoring two major flaws:

    1) Most people fill the fast majority of their iPods with music from CD’s – not the store
    2) Napster’s own subscription service wouldn’t work on the iPod – only with a compatible player.

  10. Bobman Says:

    The fact that I could keep 10 tracks a month is what almost sucked me in to Zune vs. Rhapsody. Cancel your Rhapsody (or Napster) subscription and you are left with nothing. Cancel your Zune subscription and (assuming you actually *used* your 10 tracks a month portion) you are still left with something.

    In the end I was too concerned about Microsoft abandoning Zune just like they did PlaysForSure (the original PlaysForSure, not the second incompatible PlaysForSure that morphed into Zune Marketplace that only PlaysForSure on one platform: the Zune).

    Cancel my (free) Lala subscription and I am also left with only the tracks I purchased, but I’ve spent less that the Zune $15/mo to discover new music.

    (No, I don’t work for Lala at all, I just like the service)

  11. AntDaddy Says:


    Thanks, I totally missed that…

    The way I look at it is, after the deducting the value of the 10 downloads, the Zune Pass costs approx $5/month. I have two Zunes on one pass, So it’s actually around $2.50/month per Zune. It might not be a good value for everyone, but it works for me.

  12. tom b Says:

    My iPod (4 gig old Nano) is full; it’s all Podcasts– Science Friday; All Songs Considered, etc. And it’s all FREE content.

  13. Vulpine Says:

    @AntDaddy: Why would I want to spend even $2.50/month per unit when I can get more music for less… with 5 iPods. I have almost my entire collection of nearly 14,000 music tracks (most from CD or vinyl) not counting movies and video on one iPod, my more favorite tracks on my iPhone, an iPod nano (1st gen) for biking and exercise, an iPod Classic (non-video) for carrying in the car and tying into the speakers and an ancient 5-Gig 1st-gen iPod that spent 4 of its best years as my primary car audio source (I tend to dislike broadcast radio.) And you want to know something? I spend $0.00/month to hear what I want to hear, where I want to hear it.

    Neat, huh?

  14. Jake Says:

    Vulpine’s point is why the ad doesn’t work for me. As soon as he says it’d cost $30,000 to fill an iPod–well, I know nobody’s spent no damn $30K to fill their iPod, so he’s obviously making stuff up. And if he’s making stuff up in the first 10 seconds, why should I listen to anything else he has to say?

    (It would be interesting to know how much the iTunes store’s biggest customer has spent there, though.)

  15. AntDaddy Says:

    @Vulpine: I use the Zune Pass mostly for checking out new music. If i’m interested in a new band/artist, I can download all of their albums(if available) and listen to them when convenient. When I find something I like, I can download from ITunes or buy the CD. You may spend $0.00/month, but how do you listen to anything you don’t have already?

  16. Geo Says:

    “You may spend $0.00/month, but how do you listen to anything you don’t have already?”

    C’mon : podcast, streaming (deezer, spotify,, …), web radio, FM radio, friends, etc…

  17. Steven Fisher Says:

    I really have to challenge “Rationally, subscription music makes perfect sense”…

    I buy the music I want through the iTunes store. And I think I have once spent $15 in a month. Switching to a subscription model would cost me money and not get me anything I want in return.

    That’s not rational, that’s the very definition of not rational.

  18. AntDaddy Says:

    Geo: You missed my point. If you read Vulpine’s comment, he was talking specifically about his Ipod(s). I questioned how he adds anything new to to his collection while spending $0.00/month.

  19. Geo Says:

    He can still add podcast who are free 🙂 or add creative commons music (ok this one is not a good point :D).

    But your question is still good, you still need to buy music somewhere (if you want to add news contents on mp3 players)

  20. Bobman Says:

    It is like the difference between leasing and purchasing a car. At the end of the lease you have nothing, but for some people it makes sense.

    At least with Zune (I can’t believe I’m supporting M$) you can have something at the end of the lease. The extra $5 is for the use of their library.

    OTOH, some purchase solutions (like Lala) find a middle ground; you can buy the rights to listen to a song (very cheaply) separate from the ability to copy it to any MP3 device. And the cost is not additive (you are credited for the lease cost when you purchase).

  21. TIm F. Says:

    Here is how effective this ad is (this is personal experience but I’m sure it’s true of many others):

    I have met exactly as many Zune owners as I have iPod owners considering switching to a new device because they had to spend $30,000.

  22. Ngoc Van Says:

    that’s all

  23. mp3 neophyte Says:

    I have a question for other readers: I don’t understand how they can take the music away if I cancel the service – if my iPod isn’t connected to the service, how does it know to delete the songs? In theory, couldn’t I just fill up my iPod, stop paying the fee, and keep the music on the iPod by selecting ‘manual update’ via iTunes?

  24. productivebydesign Says:

    -> DRM
    -> WMA not playing on iPods

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