Imagine walking into your favorite local record store, maybe a Best Buy, or checking out the merchandise table at a concert. Perusing the isles for the latest album or digging for rare, dusty vinyl. Even logging on to iTunes or the Amazon music store, or reading your favorite blog to check on what’s hot before spending cash on some tunes. The possibilities are limitless at least, even if your funds are not.
Now imagine handing those funds over to a company that will sell you only what they publish. This entire argument is null if you have unlimited money to throw away on music, but that just isn’t a realistic scenario, generic talk of national economic trends aside. What’s more likely is that people spend maybe fifteen to twenty-five dollars, if any at all, on music a month. So take that twenty dollars, sign up for two record labels, and for the next however many months, that’s all the music you will get. The funds are the same as the original scenario, but now the possibility for discovery is incredibly narrowed. You’ll get more music sent to your inbox, sure, but if it’s music you’re disinterested in, you might as well not be wasting hard drive space on it.
And if you’re somebody who torrents every album you own, you’re not who these labels are targeting, so don’t try and flatter yourself or think you continue to pull one over on anybody. Record labels seem to have finally figured out that there’s almost no stopping the pirating and sharing of their wares, but that capitalizing on the people who spend actually money on records might be a worthy cause. But these new subscription models may ultimately be alienating their most reliable supporters.
It’s free to browse blogs and websites, listening to new MP3s and Soundcloud uploads. But when it comes to actually purchasing a record, this new business model makes it impossible for that same consumer, the engaged, passionate music fan who loves to discover new music, to invest in whatever music they choose. Is somebody going to switch their subscription from Stones Throw to Domino this summer when the new Dirty Projectors record comes out? And then to Third Man Records’ new plan when Jack White decides to work on a new project? And when these companies do little beyond just being a glorified delivery service, what incentive does it even offer to the dedicated, passionate fan? As is the case with a lot of the labels that have opted for this business model, spearheaded by drip.fm’s rising popularity, these services offer little more than new releases and varying degrees of access to archived material. And without going into too much detail, as it does vary from company to company, it appears as though ten dollars a month with get you access to about two or three select new albums and access to back catalogue releases, in some cases. What these companies presume is that customers are willing to put all their money into one channel, without any special reward for doing so, and as an outcome somehow have a revolutionary experience accessing music and continuing on in a relationship even somewhat recognizable to life before these subscription fees. Not only do these programs seem unattractive from the outset, how they’re meant to keep the attention, and money, of customers is yet to be explained.
Outside of what these programs actually stand to offer a customer, the other problem with this new business model is that entertainment media of any sort is never created, planned or released on a consistent basis. It simply can’t be. Subscribing to Ghostly because Matthew Dear and Gold Panda are working on new albums might seem like a great idea, but when one or both take extra time to work on the album or it becomes delayed, the customer will eventually become fed up and take their money somewhere else. And that isn’t the label’s fault, or anything that the label can really control. If these subscription services ever gain enough steam to have a say in the recording or songwriting process, the line between fan and label owner becomes skewed. Does Domino pressure Real Estate to release a new record because X amount of subscribers are clamoring about it? Obviously all these questions are nightmare scenarios, and however exaggerated they might be, I think there’s legitimate concern in turning over buying power in a music label to its fans. Without the ability to come and go as they please, the opportunity to become jaded is multiplied tenfold, eventually ruining a bond that yielded the company more money outside of the subscription model.
But where these plans really fall apart is when compared to streaming services like Spotify or Rdio. For the same ten dollars a month you can access, for brevity’s sake, every single album or track imaginable. Or as Spotify’s tagline puts it, “all the music, all the time.” The debate over owning an album on your computer versus streaming might still exist, but even content fiends, like myself, can look past streaming when it means virtually all the music under the sun versus a select two or three downloads a month.
And maybe I’m too close to the situation to have an honest opinion on the new strategy. But I enjoy seeing fans getting involved with record labels, engaging with them on social media or talking about the latest and greatest release. And so I want something like this to work. But the idea of narrowing anybody’s choice of music while offering nothing beyond what a normal consumer would have available to them is simply unacceptable. The fans deserve to feel special and have a great user experience for their dedication. And I want to give companies my money for their great work, but I’m ultimately afraid drip.fm and similar services are the last dying breath of the mid-level record labels attempting to cash in on their only compliant, honest fans.