Music Subscriptions

The true value of goods is a problem that constantly perplexes economists. As someone who likes to read and think about these sorts of things it also perplexes me, by proxy. You can join the chain if you wish.

After all, what exactly is the value of music? I don’t mean on a basic “well, entertainment, distraction and self expression” level but in a cold hard cash fashion. In recent years there has been an explosion of business models created around trying to sell music to people. From radio in the 20s, through singles, albums, lps, cd’s, tapes, mp3, p2p, subscription, single track. There have probably been more attempts at product innovation and bundling in music than in many other fields (a prematurely sweeping sentence cruelly circumscribed there). One of the most interesting is receiving music on a subscription plan.

Subscriptions grew out of music clubs such as Time Life where customers commit to purchasing a certain number of records per month or year. However the important differentiation in this case is that in the subscription there is a flat fee. Possibly the best value example of subscription music pricing is Yahoo! Music Unlimited which offers access to all the music they offer (about a million tracks) for $5 a month, so long as you keep paying those $5. They can do this thanks to Digital Restrictions Management technology that locks up the files unless the correct signal is received, in this case the subscription operates similarly to a public transport travelcard. However there is another type of music subscription that I’ve been trying out over the past couple of months.

The site is called emusic, and it’s been going for a few years now, ploughing its own furrow and I assume making a fair amount of cash. I pay $9.99 (US) which is about a fiver in real money and for that I get 40 tracks to download every month. There’s no rollover minutes or suchlike, if you don’t use it, you lose it. There are other, more expensive plans but I feel that most people will settle on either five or ten quid as the amount they’re happy to spend on musical entertainment every month (on average anyway). That’d be a considerable discount on the current price but it’s likely to be made up for in volume. Anyway, the real reason I have an emusic subscription, apart from the rather good indie labels they range is one thing in particular. Naxos.

Over the last few months I’ve really been getting into classical music. I listen to it a lot as low volume background to writing, reading, playing games. All sorts. It turns out that maths and patterns really can be fun. Anyway, the major problem you have when trying to enter a new field is working out exactly what you like and Naxos is excellent for that. They’ve recorded practically the entire classical repertoire, aiming more for breadth than quality or repetition and at bargain basement prices. So I can try almost anything I want every month and listen to something new. This is good.

However, there is a problem. That problem is Opera. You see the secret awesome pricing thing about most classical music on emusic (and here I mean symphonies and concerto’s) is that they go on for such a long time. You see that bit above when I say that on emsuic you pay for the track not the length of time or download size (like well most movements in symphonies last at least 13 minutes. Compare and contrast this with a 3 minute pop song. This is great when the pricing is on my side but there’s a type of music I’m missing out on entirely because of it, Opera. Now, your average opera just has too many tracks, Mozart’s The Magic Flute has 52. If you cast your mind back you’ll see that I get 40 tracks a month, so I’d have to defer gratification for some 30 days to listen to the whole work! And all that when there’s so much other great music out there, not least 50 minute DJ sets for one download! So what music do I like more? That which is economically efficient or that which stirs something within me? Or can I defer certain satisfaction in order to find out if I like something? Perceived value is an interesting thing.

And I bet you didn’t think I’d get through an entire post on Opera without mentioning Web Browsers. Well, I didn’t.