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The Future of Music Is Subscriptions

Feb 14, 2014 2:09 PM, By Jason Bovberg


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As I discussed in my previous columns, "The Turntable as Metaphor for Digital Revolution Reluctance" and "What Happened to the Music?" I'm enduring a years-long lament about the evolution—some might say revolution—happening to the experience of listening to music. There was a time, not too long ago, when I was excited about the possibilities of brand-new high-definition audio formats in the form of DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD). These high-end physical discs required special high-capacity discs (similar to Blu-ray discs for video) and were capable of very high-resolution sound, bringing not only surround-sound music to the home but extremely high fidelity. This is the future that burned bright for me!

Ten years later, those high-end discs are all but dead (relegated to a tiny niche market). Major labels in the music industry are abandoning the formerly industry-standard CD, and—most startlingly to me—digital music purchases are falling.

Why? Subscription services! They're what all the kids are using these days. If they had their druthers, they'd find a way to get their music for free—and a great many of them do, casually but criminally. The honest kids are using subscription services such as Grooveshark, Jango, Pandora, Slacker Radio, Songza, Spotify, and Xbox Music. They pay their annual fee (or not, as some services are indeed free but ad-supported) and get unlimited access to streaming music from any device. No scratched-up discs flying around the car, no digital files clogging up hard drives, no fuss.

I had a sort of epiphany while setting up my Xbox Music service on Xbox One last month. My overriding thought before purchasing both the service and the device was that I would inevitably port over my iTunes music collection that I had spent years accumulating. My existing catalog of ripped CDs and purchased songs were a part of every conversation I had with my wife. "The Xbox will be our media server in the living room and will hold all our existing music," I said. And although the Xbox One was fully capable of such a digital-storage scenario, I was about to be taking part in an entirely new conversation, and I didn't even know it.

I remember trying to research Xbox Music's features for porting over collections and having trouble finding clear instructions. "Wait a minute," I said directly to the Xbox, "how do I add my existing collection?" And the Xbox responded with the equivalent of, "Well, if you REALLY want to do that, here's how... ." Of course I want add my music! Why wouldn't I?

Then I started to really investigate Xbox Music. I searched for music and played entire streaming albums. I created on-the-fly playlists of favorite artists, and with the click of a button, I started radio stations based on favorite styles, albums, and artists. All the while, I was feeling a certain sinking feeling. I was coming to a momentous conclusion, you see.

Forget about physical media; even digital files don't matter anymore. And that's the future of music.

Just as I once found it tough to swallow that physical media is going the way of the Dodo bird, I'm now finding it rather amazing and world-changing that even digital music—which I was always slow to embrace but was finally doing so, reluctantly—is on the verge of extinction in the face of something even more ephemeral.

Imagine me sitting there in front of my Xbox, coming to the slow realization that my entire collection of music doesn't matter anymore. Sure, there are obscure holdouts in my collection that will be tough to find in a streaming service, but those are increasingly rare. The fact is, my family can now tune in to Xbox Music and find just about any song we want, any album we want, and artist we want—and we don't own any of it. It's terrific for flexibility, convenience, and—the part that I most appreciate—discoverability of new talent. By starting a radio station based on existing favorites, we can discover new, similar artists quickly and easily. These are artists that we might never had heard of or experienced otherwise.

Perhaps you're reading this and thinking that I'm awfully slow. And that's a valid criticism. Music subscription services have been around for years, but I always seen them as mutually exclusive from actual music collections—a way to find new music, and then shop for it elsewhere. I saw subscription services as the 21st century equivalent of radio. Enjoy it? OK, now go buy it on Amazon or at Best Buy.

It's stunning how much has changed in the experience of enjoying music, in my lifetime. For this old physical-media curmudgeon, the digital revolution is something that makes me grit my teeth every day. There will never be anything as pure, perfect, and high-resolution as an LP—or a Blu-ray Disc or even a real book. But the advantages of the cloud and streaming technologies keep adding up.

And I know music is only the beginning. I see it now as a testing ground for other media. As long as I can let go of this need for "ownership," the sky is the limit. On our ubiquitous devices—whether smartphone, Kindle, Surface, phablet, or watch—my family will be streaming new novels and discovering new authors, flipping through the read-once pages of digital magazines, and streaming Hollywood blockbusters on our 6in. screens.

Now wait a minute! That's where I draw the line! Movies are meant to be enjoyed big and loud, larger than life—not just another tiny, streamed experience, easily ingested and forgotten! That gets me thinking about what we're losing in the translation. Thankfully, my kids know the pleasures of media as events—big-screen movies, book release parties, and music played so well that they can feel it in their hearts. But will their kids know those pleasures? Or will everything be disposable?



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