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Subscription Homesick Blues

Saturday, April 28th, 2007

I was surprised to see it treated as news that Steve Jobs commented to Reuters reporter that he was still opposed to selling music on a subscription model. Slashdot even picked it up.

This is news on the “Franco Still Dead” level. Jobs has consistently dissed the all-you-can-eat model of music. Since Day One of the iTunes store (4 years ago) he has refused to concede anything to the Rhapsody’s of the world. I last asked him about it last October, and this is what he said:

We don’t see it. We just don’t see a demand for it. And we’ve seen all the subscription services crash and burn and you can ascribe the reason because it wasn’t easy enough, but I think the real reason is because people don’t want to rent their music.

It was almost identical to his answer every other time I asked him. (Maybe I should have led my Newsweek story with this and put out a press release.)

But I’ve played with subscription models and they keep getting better. There is something magical to getting any song you want, any time you want it, and not having to worry about paying more for it. The standard complaint made by subscription skeptics is that when you stop paying for music, you don’t have any more. This doesn’t seem to stop people from purchasing electricity. In reality there is one and only one huge hurdle to subscriptions, and that is that in two of the three places where most people listen to music — in the car and on the go — it doesn’t really work. (At home, it works fine.) Eventually, if you believe that wireless Internet access will become available everywhere, the problem will be slam-dunk solved.

Way before that, however, I suspect that even Apple will hop on the bandwagon, and that will indeed be news. I can envision how it will unfold. At some future Macworld Expo, or launch event of a new iPod or something, there will be an announcement of a new scheme by which iTunes customers can get any song they want, anytime. Maybe the fee will even be rolled into a .mac or iPhone subscription charge. In any case, when I visit Steve Jobs after the talk for the usual post-presentation interview, I’ll open by asking him why he is now offering subscriptions when until that moment he consistently insisted that people don’t want them. (Just as I asked him, after the 5G iPod offered video, why he changed his mind about people wanting to watch programs on small screens.)

one more

And I can envision his answer. “Yes, I said that,” he’ll admit. “But we figured out, for the first time, how to do subscriptions right.”

1 Comment

  • “This doesn’t seem to stop people from purchasing electricity”

    It would if letting an electricity service lapse retroactively took all the electricity I’d ever used.

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