Digital media downloads: what do we really own and do subscriptions make sense?

Apple StoreBy Kevin Gilbert

I’d like to pose some questions for discussion. Up ’til the last year or so, we’ve purchased physical media. Vinyl albums, 8-track cassettes, standard cassettes, CDs, VHS, DVDs, etc.

What do the owners/publishers, the production studios, the distribution companies really bank on and hope for and expect? If we are a fan of a particular work, we’ll buy the latest greatest media on which that work is released, so that we may have better quality, more info, new re-mix/re-master, etc. We never owned the content, but we did own the media.

The artists, producers, publishers aren’t offering anything “new” in the way of content, just new media. Minimal cost to them, usually higher cost to the consumer. A great business model, produce once, re-sell to the same consumer many times over with each new “better media” technology that comes along. We’re closer than ever to an “all information and all entertainment is digital” world. As bandwidth increases, and the resolution/quality of digital content offerings subsequently increases, do we continue, as in the past, to “buy” the newest iteration of the same material?

I have lots of AAC files that I got from iTunes music store. Do I want to continue to buy those same files over and over as quality and resolution increase over the next 5 – 10 – 20 years? Is it a new media? Not really.

Is there something to be said for a subscription model that allows, as bandwidth increases, and as higher quality/resolution files are released, our subscription now affords us the
luxury of the newer, better media?

We’re not owning physical media anymore. I’m wondering if we really are owning digital bits? Do we want to own digital bits? Or would we like “access” to the latest, greatest, higher quality, higher resolution content “on demand” (i really didn’t want to use that term, but it’s the most applicable) as the technology and bandwidth improves. I don’t know that I’ve come to a conclusion, yet, and I’m very interested in this angle.

For the record, no pun intended, I have worked in the music industry, in production. I have worked in publishing. The goal of publishing is to “exploit” the work to it’s fullest. Sell it in as many forms, to as many consumers, as much as possible. And do it over and over and over…how much did the estate of Elvis Presley make last year?

But, I’m also a consumer. One with a growing family. One that has spent less and less each year on music and movies because it’s harder and harder to justify buying this CD or DVD now when in a couple of years we’ll have HD-DVD, and Blu-Ray, etc. (I know they are hitting the market now, but the point is next year it’s something else.) And they want to charge a little more for it even though the content is really the same. They’ve already recouped all their cost from the original release most likely.

Maybe subscription is starting to make more sense. What do you think?


  1. …crickets…

    “Is this thing on? Testing, testing.”

    I was hoping to get some good discussion going to help me figure out which side I’m coming down on. Just looking for some opinions. I’ve seen posts on other stories and I know MDN readers aren’t shy about their opinions.

  2. I’m not sure I get what you’re saying. There are DVD rentals available in any # of ways – Including “subscriptions” – if you don’t want to buy the DVD’s now because someday there will be HD-DVD’s. And when those are out, “someday” there will be something better so you’d better not buy those, either.

    I personally don’t like the subscription model. I be an old fart used to having and eating my cake/media. Subscription seems like a good choice for someone who likes radio. It gives you more control of what you listen to than things like XM. You can also avoid their BS. But you don’t get the random music that might turn you on to a new artist.

    I should note that I rarely use iTunes store, either. Costs too much for low quality.
    In my mind, digital music and movie downloads and stores and formats are just shaking out. They will not come into their own until bandwidth allows download of similar quality to the original media.
    AND the availability of complete catalogs. There ARE a lot of OLD songs from the 50’s and 60’s that I would be happy to pay 99 cents for. Stuff that only shows up on Time/Life collections!!!
    I can buy CDs for less that album pricing on iTunes and have better quality. Same, I suspect, will apply to movies.

    Come back in 3-5 years and I think we’ll see a major solidification of the download picture. Then “subscription” vs “ownership” will hopefully just depend on whether you want a quick rental or something you think is good enough to make a part of a “permanent” personal collection. Room for both approaches. But I think Apple also needs to make room for both and offer a subscription service, too.

    Changes will also happen to DRM and hopefully they are also planning for this.

    My 2 cents.

  3. There are two issues here.

    a) Subscriptions make sense if they make your life EASIER not harder. Look at subscription music – the topline view sounds great – you have access to 2 million tracks but the reality is who has that much free time to shuffle around a bunch of tracks to play professional DJ? And if your credit card expires and you forget to renew? Hasta to all that work? The bottom line is who has time to shuffle hundreds/thousands of tracks they like enough to listen to but not to own? Why not subscribe to sat radio where the Dj does all your work for THE EXACT SAME COST?

    Subscriptions like mags and newspapers work because you don’t have to go buy an issue every month or everyday … so how do you apply that analogy to music? You can’t – when everyone was with Columbia Hse & BMG Music clubs, you picked a genre, how many discs a year did you reject? Just because like Simon & Garfunkel does not mean you like Peter, paul & mary or you that same fabled DB will insist if you like Eminem, you must like Vanilla Ice? Wrong-o-boy-o.

    Subscriptions don’t work because even for cable networks you spend a lot of time watching like ESPN, there are still shows you don’t want so no one can guess what you want all the time especially since after listening to 150 genre songs, you might decide, you know, I’m tired of 60’s pop-folk, I want some neu-metal … no computer can guess that.

    b) In a way, you pointed out what the movie studios have figured to one degree that seems to escape the record labels – that we will continually buy the same movie over & over in every format from watching an ad-version on TV, to paying to watch it on cable to buying the VHs, the DVd and maybe the Blu-Ray … NOT to mention the 11 special edition versions because we lose it, our girlfriend steals it when she moves out, you’re on the road and your choice is that Mike Ditka soccer movie – suddenly that 7th copy of Caddyshack is not so bad to buy again at the airport … so the studios should not be afraid we are buying the last one ever because they will unearth some new add-on that we will pay for …

    So, yes, they shoudl sell it without a DRM because it makes life easier for them – all they have to do is crank out a new version and people will step up again and if you price it reasonably enough – like when VHS dropped to $10-$12, who was pirating them? No one … when it was $89, that was a problem- same with DVD’s …

  4. I think the bigger question I’m asking is ownership as it relates to tangible vs. intangible media. Keep in mind, we’ve never owned the content of any movie, album, book, etc., just the media on which it resided. If we no longer have tangible media to own, since within a few years practically everything will be available “online” in digital form, and we purchase “digital bits”, do we, can we, really own anything at that point? I can’t show you the latest “CD or DVD” i just purchased. If I really don’t have anything tangible to show, do I really want to “own” it? Or would I be content to access it quickly and easily as often as I want, along with every other album, song or movie or book that’s been digitized? Plus, benefit from higher quality automatically as bandwidth increases and files are upgraded to higher quality?

  5. I have thought about the same issue. I have come to the conclusion that conceptually, the subscription model is probably the better one. It is like having a huge library available without the hassles of storage and backup issues. If a common and simple delivery system could be agreed upon, I think it would win out. I imagine it would work much like radio only you get to choose the next song. Unfortunately, greed seems to inevitably ruin such concepts.

    “They’ve already recouped all their cost from the original release most likely.”

    That is one of my irritants in this whole digital matter. Why should I have to pay “new release” prices for a Beatles song when the thing was written 40 yrs ago and half the band are dead? What costs are they recouping at this point? I realize that Beatles stuff is more in demand than say Strawberry Alarm Clock, but the supply (digital) is endless.


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