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Reader Poll: What do you think of music subscription services?

Posted by: Peter Burrows on November 29, 2007

A few years back, there was lots of debate about whether the download store or the music subscription would win the day in digital music. The former offers outright ownership and, thanks to Apple’s dominance with iTunes, elegant simplicity. The subscription offered freedom to listen to whatever you want, whenever you want, for a monthly fee.

That was then. Now, it’s hardly a fair fight. Apple has created a juggernaut, while the number of subscribers to services such as Rhapsody, Napster and Yahoo Unlimited has stagnated at just a few million.

So what’s your take? If you’ve tried the subscriptions, did you like them? Did you drop them after a while, or gone on to recommend them to your friends? Tell us the plusses and minues, and what you think the future holds. Will the download store continue to dominate, or would you like to see new ways to pay for your music? Or is it all academic, becuase there are so many ways to get your music for free?

Let us hear from you.

Reader Comments


November 29, 2007 4:16 PM

Haven't had A N Y interest in them and I don't know anyone in my sphere that does. To me, only teens would consume enough to maybe make it worthwhile but they all seem to have iPods.


November 29, 2007 4:48 PM

It's somewhat academic because no one solution provides the perfect nirvana.
1) Sure, iTunes and the iPod are ubiquitous but who wants to own a pile of proprietary low-fi files?
2) Rhapsody is great--I'm a long time subscriber, but the service suffers from glitches, the client S/W is increasingly incompatible with any PC I own, the custom radio functionality hasn't kept up with what newer services provide, and the professionally programmed stations are "rough." Still, for me, this is the service to turn to for a Star Trek Replicator-like ability to pull down a myriad of tunes. But alas, Rhapsody devices still are kludgy and limited, which is where might come in.
3) Slacker--not a subscription music service per se, but a streaming service one can pay for to eliminate ads and gain more flexibility. I've pre-ordered the device because I'm burning out on creating and listening to iTunes playlists. And then there's...
4) Pandora--love these guys, although I prefer the professionally programmed prowess of Slacker stations to the Human Genome method of serving up selections.
5) Yahoo Music!--popular, yes, but IMHO...never really in the game. Yes, they introduced social networking features long before anyone else, but their fidelity is low, latency between songs long, interface kludgy...and it doesn't feel like they've invested in it.
6) Napster--Never tried need, with Rhapsody.
7) Jango--I've tried it, but am too old to appreciate or relish the social networking features of this new service. In my mind, Pandora provides a better experience.
In short (or long) my primaries are, Rhapsody, and yes..iTunes, although I hope to wean myself from iTunes if Slacker can deliver....we'll see......I see no imminent threat to iTunes/iPod.


November 29, 2007 6:19 PM

I have not tried subscriptions, but I would love to see Apple support them. I'm not sure that it would be worthwhile for me, but I would love to at least have the option.

Jason Herskowitz

November 30, 2007 7:33 AM


I have been on both sides of the subscription music business. I led the product group at AOL that acquired/relaunched AOL Music Now (unfortunately dealt away to Napster) - and I have subscribed to virtually all the competitors. I have been a big fan of the value proposition that subscription music business brings - in spite of itself and all the hoops it makes consumers jump through. For those interested, you can read some of my (ever-evolving) thoughts about the state of the market in some of my older posts (

But, as a consumer I have recently sworn off DRM (and Microsoft products/technologies in general to a large degree, but that's a different story) - after years of trying to convince myself and others that DRM is "no big deal". Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right? The turning point for me was the realization that people (like my wife) would have a portable player full of content (that I had to put on there for her) that would never play because all of the licenses were expired. With her being only a part-time computer user, the job would then fall on my shoulders to continually manage her player, download the tracks she wanted and keep it all working. Major pain in the ass.

And yes... Apple obviously uses/has used DRM for a long time too - but to their credit, they simplified the model so that you would never run into the issue of "dead" content on an iPod (since they don't do subscription they don't have to worry about renewing the licenses on a monthly basis).

I still give Rhapsody my $15/month - although I'm not sure for how long considering I broke down and got an iPhone (more on that later). Their issues (and those of the new "Rhapsody America") are the same as they have always been... subscription content doesn't play on an iPod/iPhone. And who in the marketplace doesn't want/have an iPod or iPhone? It's like the kids 30 years ago who's parents bought him a "Magnavox Odyssey2" video game system when the rest of the planet had an Atari 2600 (unfortunately, that was me).

I truly believe that a marketplace with ubiquitous high-speed IP access and multi-function mobile phones solves all of theses issues - but realistically that is still a couple of years off (keep an eye on Sprint... uh, I mean "Xohm"... and their 4G/WiMax rollout) for early adopters and probably 5+ years for the mass market.

So, until then my new digital music M.O. is iPhone + eMusic + DRMless MP3 purchases (some from iTunes even they are actually AAC files, some from Amazon) + free-range MP3 streaming and "acquisition" (SkreemR, Hype Machine, Seeqpod, etc.) + library sharing (via Simplify Media) + personalized streaming services (more on that soon). What the market really needs is a destination that aggregates all these options into a single place - there are a couple that are starting to do this now - and I'm sure more will follow (will it be Google?).

The two year AT&T contract that I had to sign for my iPhone will expire just as it is time to move back to an all-you-can eat subscription model....

Brandon W

November 30, 2007 9:12 AM

I think subscription services, in general, can be a great thing. I just don't think I hear enough decent music on a monthly basis to make it worthwhile. It's the same as Netflix, to me... I might watch one movie a month. I might buy one album every three months. Paying a monthly fee for that just isn't worth it.


November 30, 2007 9:54 AM

I've tried almost all the legal digital music services and decided to stick with the best - Napster. 5mm tracks, unlimited always-on access to just about any music you can imagine, 3 players/computers per subscription at $15 per month means I and my two nephews have our own playlists and basically our own subscriptions for an average cost of $5 each per month, the new web-based interface means anyone with our password can access all the music (playlists included) from any internet connection, automix feature is good for exploring new music, plenty of radio stations and preselected playlists, software seems to always work without a glitch no matter where I use it, what's not to like? I don't need to "own" a bunch of audio files that will be obsolete within a few years when higher bitrates become the standard or better codecs are available. The only poor thinkg I've heard about Napster is the new mobile phone interface is supposedly weak and they don't have the subscription service available for mobile phones here in the U.S. yet. For some unexplainable reason people just don't seem to be trying Napster and it's their loss.


November 30, 2007 9:57 AM

So many choices now. But difficult to change consumer behavior. Apple has the brand. Apple has the engineering muscle. Apple has the market locked down with giant ad budgets and distribution everywhere -- retail, online, etc. If any of the competitors can create a better experience, they will pick up some business. But each most likely angling with their various features in an attempt to be acquired by larger players, like Google, who see growth opps in the digital music space through subscriptions -- or GPS-guided advertising on mobile devices. Acquisitions are possible if someone can demonstrate a good path here. Lastfm is one of the players not mentioned much in this string. They were acquired earlier this year, given their social networking component -- and the heat around that as a desired business model. It's one thing the Apple iTunes store was wise to include -- Top 100 songs and Top 100 albums, a way for users to compare their tastes with those of others real-time. Still early in the subscription-model streaming game to know who has the lead.


November 30, 2007 12:14 PM

If you truly want the keys to the musical kingdom, subscription is the way. Within the past month our family have listened to Josh Turner's new album, a variety of holiday music ( A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dean Martin, Beach Boys ), a classic Vanilla Fudge album, a couple of Dave Brubeck albums from the early 60's, Paul McCartney's new album, a classic David Frye comedy album, and much, much more! To have access to the world's record store for only $10 a month is a bargain.


November 30, 2007 10:06 PM

I got the Zune Pass and love it. People gripe about losing the music if you miss a payment. All you need to do is renew the subscription and poof your music is back. Now if I get songs from iTunes and my computer takes a dump - then my songs are really gone. That sucks more. I'll never buy music or movies again! Love Netflix and love the Zune Pass!!!


December 1, 2007 3:44 AM

In our household we have a subscription to Yahoo! Music for our daughters. As young teens their tastes change so rapidly that being able to play the latest hit is important ... but they have no interest in collecting music except a song here and there. Subscriptions as a concept work just fine for the mainstream music lover; the WMA DRM scheme was poorly implemented (some DMPs could play purchased DRM WMAs but not subscription ones - huh? Stupidity). Our household also subscribes to eMusic (it is a monthly subscription fee) because I do collect music and I will NOT pay for DRM files - period. Besides, eMusic has the music and artists I want, with a few exceptions. It is an easy, rich experience and I highly recommend it. As for the vaunted iPod + iTunes cartel, I have tried the devil and seen it for what it was. Yes the Apple DMPs are outstanding - just like their PCs - but you have to drink the Kool-Aid to REALLY be able to live within their walls. And iTunes is NOT that great; no real music info, and a layout interface that is still turn-of-the-century. They could do much better. Unless the other music companies give in and kill DRM, Apple should enjoy its day in the sun, because the fragmenting of the industry due to their obstinence against the digital/internet revolution will begin to start eroding their now captive audience as other DMPs and online services get it right.


December 2, 2007 12:37 PM

I won't buy an iPod, because iTunes doesn't offer a subscription music service.

When I finally get a decent broadband connection (grumble), I am going to get a Zune.


December 2, 2007 7:22 PM

Having choice would be nice inside of iTunes. Though I honestly would never "rent" music. Music is something that outfits my life, like art, books, movies, collectables, wine, antiques, etc. It says something about me, where I've been and what I love. Therefore, I prefer to collect it, own it.


December 4, 2007 8:34 AM

I am curious why Apple doesnt answer the cry of consumers who would desire a subscription model. Why not grab both "individual sales" and "download subscription" markets? Why not become THE one stop shop for all things music? It seems that there are just as many preferences for obtaining music out there as there are preferences on styles of music. It wouldnt make sense for iTunes to only sell "country" or sell "hip-hop" music exclusicely, why does it make sense for them to only "sell" music and not allow download subscriptions?

steve ballmer

December 7, 2007 7:26 PM

Polls show that the majority has always wanted to rent their music, Apple has forced people through iThreats into buying and owning!


December 8, 2007 12:18 AM

I listen at home and love Rhapsody. It has totally changed the way I listen to music. I listen to a broad range of music; about 40% is artists I never heard before. I love listening to the same track by lots of different artists like You Win Again by Hank Williams, Fats Domino, The Greatful Dead, Roy Orbison and Keith Richards. Rhapsody's radio doesn't compare to Pandora though.


December 11, 2007 9:50 PM

I love it subscription music is the way to go.
You never really "own" your music you just own the current format it is on. You may own albums or cassettes but what can you do with that music now?
Subscription music allows you to listen to new music or listen your favorites. Why pay $0.99 per song when I can put as many songs as I want on my and my girlfriend's mp3 player. It also gives me the option of using something other than an overpriced Apple product.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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