How Netflix Can Save Music

I recently wrote an essay about how open web mobile apps will ultimately triumph over the device specific apps that are red hot right now for iPhone and Android when wifi reaches more spaces. In that piece I hinted at a solution to the problem of making money off of digital music that has plagued the ‘industry’ for over a decade. The answer is encompassed in one single word. Access.

My friend shared a post with me by designer philosopher Frank Chimero in which he compellingly lays out core ideals for living he calls the Goldilocks mindset. (I’d been unaware of Mr. Chimero’s blog and work but I’m very enthusiastic about subscribing to it as I find his particular point of view and writing style very relatable to my own experience.) The Goldilocks mindset consists of five core precepts which can be read here.

The ideal of relevance to the future economic viability of selling music is “Access trumps ownership.” Mr. Chimero compellingly lays out scenarios of why access is superior such as joining a gym instead of owning and maintaining a treadmill, using Zip Car, libraries and most relevantly subscribing to Netflix instead of constantly buying movies.

The simplest access model that I think wilI invigorate and open the sale of music is the one Netflix uses. I have been a Netflix subscriber on and off for a decade. I’ve never had any issue with their business model which is rooted in the good old video rental store (which is a monetized version of an ancient idea—the library). With so many titles they carry now available for web streaming Netflix’s value to me has increased exponentially. Thanks to their fantastic iPhone app and a special a/v cable from Apple I have found plenty of media to watch without even considering purchasing cable tv. Needless to say I’m eager for the Netflix streaming database to grow as it is still limited.

In this free and casual consumption of media I began wondering why I couldn’t just consume music on Netflix with the ease I can watch a movie. Music is much more lightweight taking only a fraction of the bandwidth of a movie and would be incredibly easy to implement. I suppose this hasn’t happened yet because music and tv/film use separate business models with different rules on how they lease their content. The now artificial difference between the two is historical originating in how the technologies developed and were (mass) marketed. Thanks to the phonograph music was treated as an own-able commodity right out of the gate. Film and later Tv was access based from it’s inception. To an extent you could put music into the access camp if you consider radio, however, the motivation of leasing songs for radio was/is often to ultimately sell the song to the listener and listening to music on radio is very passive as opposed to deliberately selecting what records to buy. Tv and movies have only been widely available to own in an affordable format since the 70s. Movie theaters and broadcast television were the primary means of access for visual media. There is a behavioral difference in how we appreciate music and movies that is rooted in the legacy of their earliest replicating technologies.

These days in the web media era there is actually a negligible difference in the technology between what we can now just call audio and video (and obviously the two are intertwined technologically regarding film and television). They are now deployed and delivered in very similar ways.

Because music in the last century evolved as a shorter form to sell large quantities of pop 45 rpm records in the 20th century it inevitably became the battleground of changing consumption technologies. This lightweight, short form became portable in the later 20th century with tapes, Walkmans, Discmans and culminated with mp3s and the iPod. We should stand back and consider that this portable short-form appreciation of music is entirely cultural and should not be seen as an inevitability or a constant. Consider that our parents and grandparents (and even my own Generation X) grew up appreciating their owned music more intimately on record players which ironically resembles how we now consume video, in a more engaged way. Hopefully I’ve been convincing in showing that audio and video in a mass media context are now really the same thing. Once this is realized the solution for economically viable music in our time becomes apparent. But first, I’d like to explain why I dislike the dominating iTunes model which has asserted itself as the mainstream way to buy music.

(I hope you’ve digested Frank Chimero’s Goldilocks mindset of why access over ownership is better than the reverse.) iTunes, in a very antiquated way facilitates ‘ownership’ of music files. I believe that ownership of virtual data that can be replicated infinity times is just an illusion and literally amounts to a pervasive scam by Apple. Apple is taking advantage of the goodwill of fans towards their favorite musicians (“support the artist”). The painful truth of the digital era is that data is viral and cannot truly be owned. It can be protected, rationed, duplicated, shared, deleted and stored…but never truly owned because it is not a physical thing (like a vinyl record is). Digital files have no real world monetary value. Accumulation of data does have physical and financial consequences such as needing to buy devices with enough storage to compensate for this digital hoarding. No doubt we need to pay for storing the data we create ourselves. But in a new era of online streaming it seems ludicrous to use up so much of our hard drive space for media that could be subscribed to. It doesn’t just seem pointless, it is pointless. If we understand audio and video to be the same things it seems to me music could be deployed on a subscription service like Netflix overnight. Music subscription services exist but are so far unsuccessful because the ‘music industry’ doesn’t see music’s leasability as it’s premium (with the ironic exception of music licensing to film and video which is not a b2c business). Leasing content has always been the business model since the early days of film and television with the consumer paying for ACCESS manifested in buying movie tickets, cable tv or subscribing to Netflix etc.

The best chance for paid music to be economically viable in the future is to have it stored on huge content databases in ‘the cloud’ and allow customers unlimited access to it for attractive subscription fees. Because access to music in this way would be a big cultural change in music consumption an established media access service like Netflix would be the best company to lead the way. (Other media subscription services like Hulu could possibly incorporate music as well but Netflix is much more dynamic, simple and flexible.) The inclusion of music on Netflix would actually encourage more access based internet subscription competitors because a consumer acceptance of subscription music would enlarge the media subscription market considerably.

Subscription access to music on a mass scale would also be great for artists, specifically for lesser known artists, whose music would be just as easy to listen to as Kanye West’s under an unlimited subscription plan. As it stands currently with Apple’s .99 cents a song, consumers are likely to play it safe by preserving popular status quo’s and trends instead of venturing off and discovering new music for themselves. .99 cents a song is extraordinarily expensive when you consider the amount of short-form pop music we crave and are capable of consuming. And as I stated before, I think it is deceitful for Apple to sell something the customer cannot truly own.

I haven’t talked much about piracy because in my view once you give consumers unlimited access to media piracy becomes obsolete. With unlimited access consumers will consume media in such large amounts that their subscriptions will actually cost less than they would pay for storage and maintenance devices. It will simply be easier and more enjoyable to subscribe and enjoy quality media whenever (and even wherever) you want.

This unlimited access music world would radically alter the economics of the music distribution system in which music labels start to operate like film production companies. Music has historically been at the vanguard of media technology do to the short malleable form of it we prefer in our culture. In many ways it has paved the way for more elegant film and tv solutions because those industries have had the benefit of learning from the growing pains of music media. Bringing this lightweight form into the access subscription model like Netflix would encourage even faster evolution of media technology once it is liberated from the limited storage capacities of our own transient devices. The media data, our shared culture, is what lasts and is ultimately unownable in a digital world and access to it, lots and lots of it, is where it can be fairly monetized.

I could probably write a book about how I think access based music could be implemented. So Netflix, if you’re listening, I’m available for hire as a consultant so don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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  1. Greg Kane says:

    One word … Spotify

    • Jason Paul says:

      Yes! I only left it out because I haven’t had the privilege of experiencing it here from across the pond. It seems very promising. However, it’s very possible that Netflix and/or Amazon will beat them to the new market of accessible music based on their huge customer bases and favourable brand equities. This would of course be unfortunate.

  2. Clark Battle says:

    Another word… Rhapsody (for those of us on this side of the pond)

    • Jason Paul says:

      True. Admittedly never considered it although I will do the trial… I think my point still stands that it would probably take a bigger player like Netflix to legitimize the idea of subscription music as the norm instead of the exception. The broader point being music is just media just like movies and they can be delivered in the same way. I think a big part of why Rhapsody is not as big as it could be is because the flawed iTunes model has established itself as the norm which is unfortunate because of how transient it is.

      I actually am in the middle of a 7 week trial of Rdio and have been really pleased with the quality of the service. They made it easy for me and let me sign in with my Facebook login (see: http://www.jasonpaul.net/2011/01/facebook-wont-fail-like-myspace-because-it-has-pioneered-in-singular-online-identity/ )

      To be honest the interface design is really beautiful on Rdio and the UX feels really solid. From the superficial view of just going through the Rhapsody site without signing up the brand feels dusty to me and the site feels salesy and templated. But I’m sensitive to this stuff…but it’s a factor in where I align myself. It doesn’t mean I won’t try it…but I’m going in with reservations…

  3. Pingback: The state of digital music (as I see it) | Jason Paul

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