iTunes by subscription?

Matthew JC. Powell
20 March, 2008
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Apple is reportedly contemplating, for its iPhone customers at least, a change to its iTunes business model that would allow customers unfettered access to the iTunes Store. It would fund this by adding a premium to the price of the devices, and that premium would then be divided between the major music labels based on their market share. Up until now, Steve Jobs has been vigorously opposed to similar models offered by other download providers.

The problem inherent in such a model is that it precludes users from actually owning their music. Imagine being told that for, say, $80, you could wander into HMV and have all the CDs you want. Quite possibly you’d clear the shelves and give away what you didn’t want. Have your Christmas shopping well and truly handled. The unlimited ability to obtain goods, coupled with unlimited freedom to use those goods, is inherently unbalanced and unsustainable, at least under the capitalist system.

Capitalism normally limits you in one of two ways: either your consumption is limited by price, or your usage is limited by ownership. So either you pay more for something and can do with it what you want (as with a book), or you pay less and have to give it back or share with others (as with, say, a library). That’s the system — either consumption is limited, or usage is limited.

The music industry has tried to bend the system by limiting consumption (with price) and limiting usage (with copy protection). The software industry works much the same way. It’s actually anti-capitalist, and the backlash from customers has been apparent and obvious. We instinctively know how the system is supposed to work and we don’t like people fiddling with it.

The iTunes model restores some balance to the system by rationing demand with the instrument of price, but then alowing unfettered usage of the end-product. Particularly in the case of iTunes Plus, which includes no digital-rights management (DRM) of any kind, buying music that way feels more right. More fair. The FairPlay DRM that exists on the rest of the iTunes Store’s content limits your usage, but not really by very much, and it isn’t difficult to overcome if you really feel you want to (if, for instance, you want to use music bought on Apple’s store with something other than an Apple device).

Other stores have challenged the model by reducing the limitation on consumption, either with inexpensive subscription payments or with one-off fees, but then the limitation applies at the other end: you stop paying your subscription and the music you "bought" vanishes. Because, of course, you never owned it. the one-off systems (such as one offered by Nokia) are restricted to the device upon which the music was obtained.

There are advantages, of course. Not having to count pennies each time you find a song you like, for instance. How many of us have bought a CD because of a song we liked on the radio, and haven’t listened to that disc for decades since? Wouldn’t it be nice if that hadn’t cost us money we’d never see again? And Nokia’s model also retains a record of your purchases so that if, for instance, your mobile is lost or stolen, you can be up and running with your collection again in little time. iTunes won’t do that for you.

But Jobs has been consistent in his opposition to such models. He has consistently argued that people should be able to do what they want — within reason — with the music they buy. he has been an outspoken advocate of selling music via iTunes with no DRM on it at all, giving people more freedom with their digital downloads than they get from many CDs these days.

The unlimited model apparently being talked about at the moment would necessarily change that. There is simply no way that you could say to someone "OK, you’ve paid your $80 premium for the phone, now the entire content of the iTunes Store is yours to do with as you will". For one thing, how are the network carriers going to feel about the sudden spike in their traffic as people download unlimited songs?

I’ve read an article on this that essentially guesses that Apple might go for a subscription model of some sort, whereby if you cease to pay your subscription you get to keep some proportion of the songs you’ve purchased — say 40 percent of them. I seriously doubt such a model would work, if only for its sheer arbitrariness.

At any rate, all of this is supposition and speculation at the moment — no such model exists. Even if it comes to pass, the iPhone isn’t in Australia yet, and no-one seems to be speculating on whether the same model would work on the iPod touch, or whether it would be somehow limited to the iPhone.

I know only this: Once I buy a song, I want to keep it and do what I want with it, indefinitely. iTunes has so far delivered that. Mess with it, and it breaks.

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