Photo: Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech
Sorry, Apple, but I don’t want to pay $9.99 a month for Apple Music. If it’s any consolation, it’s not personal: No other streaming music service has tempted me to give up owning my tunes in exchange for rented access to a larger library.
(Meanwhile, I’m happy to rent videos on a regular basis. How can I be so inconsistent? More on that below.)
You can stop the music
To start, understand that I have a certain amount of life experience. My first concert was in 1986, so long ago that Ticketmaster had not yet taken over the market for stadium-scale shows; years later, I got too familiar with the smell of the old 9:30 Club in D.C. I already own thousands of songs, many purchased before streaming services arrived and all of which cost me nothing to keep. I am not the target market for Apple Music.
Were I starting from scratch, with an empty iTunes music library staring me in the face, could the streaming-music proposition look better?
That scenario’s best case: My $10 or so per month connects me to a library tens of millions of songs deep, anywhere I can find sufficient bandwidth. Even if I didn’t have a solid Internet connection, I’d still have the option to save songs for offline listening. As long as I keep forking over my money, the music need never stop.
But the word “anywhere” demands an asterisk: I’d still need to have the right hardware and an app that can run on it.
Take Apple Music: This complicated and thinly documented service fits well on my iMac, MacBook Air, and iPad. But it’s useless on my Android phone until Apple’s promised app arrives. Non-Apple media devices like Roku players, wireless speakers, and connected TVs? Forget about it.
Yes, you can ditch one streaming service and take your business to another that supports more hardware (see Pandora, Spotify or Rhapsody) without losing any purchases, since you never made any. But do you really want to start all over again, re-creating every detail of every playlist?
Buying downloads scrubs away those risks. With no proprietary formats and no “digital rights management” lock-in — a consumer victory we really don’t appreciate enough — your music is yours for the duration. And you’re not limited to listening: You can put that music into other projects, like slideshows and home movies, without having to ask permission.
And don’t overlook the return for the artists making the music. Musicians can collect more money from downloads than from streaming services, at least at first.
“Even a 99-cent download is a relatively high margin transaction compared to micropennies, where payments aggregate over time,” Future of Music Coalition chief executive officer Casey Rae wrote in an email.
Video for rent
That’s why I continue to buy my music off iTunes and Amazon, if at a slower rate than when I was in my 20s and 30s. (Because parenthood.) And yet, at the same time, I can’t remember the last time I bought a movie or TV download. Instead, I am more than happy to rent access to them via Netflix, Amazon, and other sites.
Why? Three reasons. The first has to do with DRM and compatibility. Unlike music downloads, movie and TV downloads remain locked in formats that limit the devices and apps you can use to watch them. I will never really own them — so why pay more for a pretense of a purchase?
Video is also something I’m likely to enjoy in fewer places: basically, my TV, my laptop, and my tablet. I don’t need it on my phone as I’m walking, and I’d better not have it in my car while driving. So compatibility limits aren’t as bothersome here.
Finally, repeat viewing isn’t as much of a thing as repeat listening. Many movies and TV shows don’t need a second run on the screen in the way even an average song can reward additional spins.
But if I can ever buy unlocked, DRM-free copies of my favorite movies, those spending habits may shift, just as my digital-music purchases jumped after Apple ditched DRM and increased sound quality. (The same goes for e-books, in case anybody in publishing reads this.)
Dreaming of streaming
Is anybody on the same frequency as me about downloads? Maybe not for long. While download revenues still dwarf those of streaming, according to the Recording Industry Association of America’s 2014 numbers, the trends show streaming gaining while downloads fade.
So on the positive side — and to sound less like a grumpy old man yelling at the kids to stay off his hard drive — streaming can be a great and sometimes necessary counterpart to downloading. It can connect me to new music and provide a soundtrack for those times when I don’t want to bother cueing up individual tracks.
Spotify’s free service excels at the first task; the algorithms at Pandora do well at the second. The humans at other Web-radio stations — including Apple’s idiosyncratic, DJ-dominated Beats 1 — can handle both. So can plain old FM, or at least it can when stations stray from market-tested playlists and allow themselves to sound local for a change.
Fortunately, Beats 1 and the other curated stations on Apple Music don’t require payment. So I guess I’ll spend a little more time on them when using devices Apple supports. Writing this has made me realize one thing anew: Musically speaking, I need to get out more. It might be nice to recognize more than a few of the bands on the calendar at the new 9:30 Club.