Like a whole lot of people who care about music and the Net, I read the recent Times Magazine piece The Music Man, about how Rick Rubin is trying to save a big piece of the Music-Biz-That-Was, in part by (gasp!) increasing product quality. He also talks about moving from away from a ship-the-disks model to a subscription-based business (this starts about halfway down page 5 of the piece). John Gruber scoffs at the idea. I think they’re both wrong; but that subscriptions will be a big deal.

Rubin envisions a model where you subscribe to the whole universe of music for say $20/month, and all the labels have to agree on how to carve up the business. John argues that this would imply DRM, because you could sign up for a month, download everything, unsubscribe, and (although John doesn’t suggest this) publish it on a server in Russia.

That’s a straw man, though, because Rubin’s idea almost entirely misses the mark. I don’t want to subscribe to the universe, I want to subscribe to a few individual artists, and maybe a particular DJ’s selections, or maybe an affinity group.

And given that, there’s the possibility for spending less money on music (little enough that it’s just not worthwhile stealing) while routing more to the artists. I wrote this up at length in my late-2005 piece On Selling Art, and I haven’t seen anything since then to make me change my mind.



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From: John Cowan (Sep 04 2007, at 21:57)

William Blake's annotation to a book by Joshua Reynolds, 18th-century top-dog English painter, on his reference to "giv[ing] advice to those who are contending for royal liberality [patronage]":

Liberality! We want not Liberality! We want a Fair Price & Proportionate Value & A General Demand for Art.

Let not that Nation where Less than Nobility is the Reward, Pretend that Art is Encouraged by that Nation. Art is the First in Intellectuals & Ought to be First in Nations.

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From: paul (Sep 04 2007, at 22:10)

I haven't read the piece yet but if he is talking at all about changing music back from a Product (what else are 12 inch records or CDs but convenient sales units?) and back into something that resonates with people, I'm with him.

So many musicians are opting out of the music business, it seems, doing all their own promotion and nurturing their fan bases. It boggles the mind that the CD is 25 years old, the internet as know it close to 15, and the RIAA cartel has moved from unknown business entity to a universally loathed enterprise. I guess the real question is, have they always hated the music fan, only caring for our money, or did that come along later?

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From: Ryan Cousineau (Sep 04 2007, at 22:53)

Nope, I don't see subscriptions as being a big deal.

First off, nothing you've said here or previously refutes the (probably true) assertion that subscriptions=DRM.

Second, a lot of artists don't have very big bodies of work. I'm trying to imagine more than ten whose back catalog would justify a reasonably-priced subscription model, versus just buying the whole darned thing. Just look at Jonathan Coulton: deliberately recorded a song a week for a year, and you can still buy his whole back catalog for $70. If you just pick out the ten songs you really like, well, that's an album's worth.

The above doesn't apply to the Beatles and several other groups, but if you are a fan then you know that you've already got 'em.

It's not like there aren't subscription services out there right now (and, it must be said, even the ones that aren't vulnerable to stream-ripping are still open to the analog hole), but they're not very popular by any measure. It appears that there's great numbers of music consumers who have big stacks of those high-bitrate silver discs, and don't much like the idea of re-renting them for a monthly charge and at lower quality.

The only subscription-based "music service" that seems to have any traction is satellite radio, and I suspect that's largely because it goes where the broadband internet isn't: the car. Plus, you know, all those not-music stations.

However, I see great promise for Mr. Rubin's "good music" project. I think that one has legs.

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From: alecm (Sep 05 2007, at 02:02)

Maybe it would be better if we all describe the idea in the most concise way: he's proposing a "music license" or "music tax", depending on whether you think licenses *are* another form of taxation.

That's it, clear and simple. No license, no music. A bit like TV licenses in the UK, but I'll bet we'd still have to buy stuff in this scheme, too...

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From: Mark (Sep 05 2007, at 04:22)

For me the deal killer for subscription services is the "whole universe of music" part. No way will they get the whole universe of music. It'll be the Waldenbooks of music, or at best the Amazon of music.

If your taste is limited to recent, popular stuff (not just mainstream popular, but even indie popular), O.K., but I think that 20 percent of many people's taste, if they are out of their teens, encompasses some relatively rare stuff that wouldn't be available.

Remember how you could get "anything" on Napster or P2P or Torrent? "Anything" hit a wall pretty quickly for most people.

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From: David Magda (Sep 05 2007, at 05:02)

Personally I'd love to have a subscription-type system available, and I wouldn't mind it being streaming only like 'Internet radio'. For (say) $20/month I could sample all the artists I've heard good things about without worrying having a huge stack of silver discs that I have no room for (and the cost of purchasing them).

Once I find the artists or albums that I like I would simply pay a fee for a DRM-free digital file that I can do with what I want.

While the streaming subscription may be inconvenient for those who want to take music on the road, it would be a good first step. If you really like music, and want it around you everywhere you go, I don't think it would be unreasonable to ask you to pony up some cash.

Besides, as mobile / cellular networks become more IP-centric it will be possible to do the same thing with your portable unit eventually (though data rates suck here in Canada).

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From: Chris Norris (Sep 05 2007, at 06:06)

I think subscription-based music works fairly well. I've been using Rhapsody for some time and enjoy it. Yes, the DRM, and the lack of portability aren't the best, but I still feel like I'm getting quite a lot for my ~$12 a month. From just about any computer connected to the internet I can listen to most, though not all, music I can imagine I'd want to hear. Even some local bands and the aforementioned Jonathon Coulton are on there.

I do think that DRM and the subscription model are very intertwined, although I think that will not necessarily always be the case, but figuring out how to separate the two... well, now, that's the trick, isn't it?

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From: Bob DuCharme (Sep 05 2007, at 06:50)

>you could sign up for a month, download everything,

emusic.com offers a nice alternative (several, actually; see http://www.emusic.com/help/index.html#q4): you pay $x for for y MP3 downloads a month. There's no DRM, and the scalability for massive ripoff doesn't work.

It certainly has me looking forward to the seventh of each month, when my credits get restocked.

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From: aharden (Sep 05 2007, at 06:53)

I read the article as well and linkblogged it:

http://aharden.wordpress.com/2007/09/04/links-for-2007-09-04/">linkblogged

It's too bad that Columbia might be saved by someone who has a horrible track record with regards the audio quality of the albums he's produced.

See:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rick_Rubin#List_of_albums_produced

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Californication_%28album%29#Critical_reception

Moving the major labels into the Internet Age won't mean much to me if they won't end the Loudness War and make their product more sonically pleasing.

Reference:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war

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From: Dave M (Sep 05 2007, at 09:08)

I think one example of a "subscription service" that already exists is satellite radio, and personally I believe that as far as radio goes, it's the wave of the future. By targeting the programming very specifically (not just "country", but "new country", "classic country", "outlaw country", "bluegrass", etc), there's pretty much something for everyone, and I think the music industry should recognize that although "traditional" radio is dead, satellite radio is not.

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From: len (Sep 05 2007, at 10:25)

One sea change is some major labels now offer free blogs to the artists (at Vox). The promise is we post songs there and the A&R department (who also have blogs there) review them.

No it won't change the fact that many of the A&R execs are self-absorbed wanna bes who inflict bad taste born of limited talent on the public. That is the source of much of the bad music and bad playlists. On the other hand, the blogs if used well at least kick the doors open wider than they have ever been. The traditional approach requires lawyers to get those meetings with the execs and by the time the artist gets there, lots of little bites have taken most of the money for nothing but a pass through.

Do we need those people? Not as much but the copying of songs really does hurt the artists first and the web is a blessing and a curse. iTunes is more a curse than a blessing. CDBaby is a blessing straight up.

Rubin took good care of Johnny Cash. A close friend of mine worked for Cash and told the stories of how that came to be and how much Cash and his family appreciated it. He has a good head and maybe he can make a difference.

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From: Colin (Sep 05 2007, at 16:20)

A subscription-based system can only work if you get to keep everything you've already paid for even if you stop subscribing. Would anyone actually prefer to rent music rather than buy it?

Therefore, it would still need to be a traditional download model rather than keeping everything on the server.

If you had:

* low prices with different tiers (say $5, $10 and $20 a month)

* no lock-out on tracks you've already downloaded if you stop subscribing. In fact, no DRM whatsoever - just plain MP3 or FLAC files

* decent monthly track limit (say, 100, 200 or 500 tracks per month) plus ability to buy extra in a given month

* fast and reliable servers

then you might be on to something. Any approach where you can only listen to downloaded stuff if you keep subscribing is simply not going to work.

People could still set up their own servers to let you download stuff for free but if the "official" channel is cheap enough and easy enough to access then how much of an incentive would there be to do this?

Also, this extract from the Rick Rubin interview made me laugh:

"The 'word of mouth' department will function as a publicity-promotional arm of the company, spreading commissioned buzz through chat rooms across the planet"

Is "commissioned buzz" a polite phrase for spam?

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From: Phil (Sep 06 2007, at 01:57)

"I don’t want to subscribe to the universe, I want to subscribe to a few individual artists"

I do that already, with the added bonus that I don't need to tell anyone when I unsubscribe. (I was an Elvis Costello subscriber from _My Aim is True_ to _Mighty like a rose_; no longer.)

*For the customer*, I don't see how this is a fix for something that's broken.

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From: Adam (Sep 06 2007, at 10:01)

I don't like the idea of a temporary subscription -- but I'd like to be able to "buy" (er, license?) a lifetime right to play a song on any personal device connected to the network.

BTW, have you visited http://www.deezer.com/ yet? It's far from perfect, but it shows movement towards a model where one can listen for free (supported by advertising), pay for file portability, and importantly, where users can legally and easily share music and playlists with friends. For example:

http://www.deezer.com/?urlIdSong=9256

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From: Ben Williams (Sep 09 2007, at 18:35)

I've been a long-time Rhapsody subscriber, which is effectively the universe subscription model. While it has a lot of drawbacks, like DRM on the downloads and Windows-only support for the jukebox software (you can use the web-based player anywhere), having instant access to almost any music has revolutionized my relationship with music. I was also an eMusic subscriber back when it had an all-you-can-eat model, pay a monthly fee and download as many MP3 as you want. That didn't work for them economically but I'm not convinced it can't work if the price is right and it's what I keep hoping Rhapsody and similar services will evolve into.

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September 04, 2007
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