Digital Content in an Ownership Society

I’ve been collecting media in one form or another since I was old enough to recognize Beatles ’65 at the White Front department store in Fresno, California. That was around 1966. I was three, and it was a very bad day for my mother.

In the years since, I watched my LP and 45 collection explode, only to be replaced by CDs, and finally to be morphed into a vast field of bits on a relatively small network storage device. Bits that I dutifully back up, maintain, and curate.

I spend more time fixing faulty ID3 tags than I care to admit. And I’m constantly annoyed when album art mysteriously goes missing (am I the only person having this problem with iTunes?).

There’s a point where it might just be easier to chuck it all and consider subscribing to one of those all-you-can-eat music services. That’s certainly what the RIAA would like me to do.

Subscription services are apparently the future of the music industry. Well, this week at least. And if you look around you’ll see that most media corporations are looking for ways to package digital content into a subscription-ready format.

The benefit of owning digital content vs. subscribing to digital content services is one I’ve been pondering for a while now, so I was interested to see Mac Slocum raise the issue with an open question on Digital Ownership vs. Digital Subscriptions over on the TOC blog. One of Mac’s questions is, “What would it take for you to switch from ownership to subscription?”

It’s an interesting question, and one that I don’t have a clear or concise answer for. I am naturally inclined towards ownership of digital content for reasons mostly related to DRM restrictions. Although, when I really think about it — and as the marketplace for digital content evolves — I am finding that subscriptions make sense for certain types of digital media and services.

In fact, I currently subscribe to a number of different digital content services. My subscriptions include:

  • LA Times, Kindle Edition — I’ve written in the past about how I’ve lost all use for the print edition of the LA Times. If there’s a hope for the newspaper industry it just might be in the form of digital editions delivered to dedicated eReaders. While the Kindle edition of LAT is far from perfect (I’ll write more about that in a separate post), it’s good enough for daily consumption and overcomes a number of drawbacks of the print edition.
  • Safari Bookshelf — The Safari service is an amazing value that frees up a huge amount of space on my physical bookshelf, while allowing me access to a wide range of regularly updated technical books.
  • eMusic — a music subscription service without DRM. eMusic offers a huge collection of indie rock, jazz, and blues recordings. Because there’s no DRM, subscribers get to keep the music they’ve downloaded. And because eMusic continues to add new labels, there’s incentive to keep an active subscription.
  • Jaman — Jaman isn’t really a subscription service, but they do offer time limited rentals of independent and foreign films. I can live with Jaman’s restrictions because the rental fee is reasonable and they offer a selection of films that is hard to find anywhere else. It also helps that Jaman has supported the Mac platform from the very beginning.

As the development of digital media devices advances, I expect that there will be all sorts of content that I’ll be willing to subscribe to, provided the content owners present me with a reasonable value proposition.

Despite my apparent willingness to rent content, there are still subscription services that simply don’t make sense to me. I doubt that I will ever subscribe to a Rhaposdy-like music service. At least not as my primary source of music. At this point my digital music collection is so large that Rhapsody doesn’t have much to offer me in the way of new content that I’d actually care to listen to.

Part of my desire to own my music collection is rooted in the fact that music has been such an important part of my life for so long. It’s not disposable content like yesterday’s edition of the LA Times. I can’t imagine not “owning” Quadrophenia, Kind of Blue, or London Calling, even as the concept of owning albums in the digital age becomes increasingly more intangible.

For me ownership is for the content that I care most about and wish to have a long-term relationship with, while subscriptions are for more ephemeral content.

I suspect my bias towards owning music may be generational. It seems likely that we’ll come to a point — possibly soon — when a future generation simply doesn’t see the value of managing huge collections of digital media, and digital subscriptions are the natural way of doing things.

4 Responses to “Digital Content in an Ownership Society”

  1. I’ve really struggled with this issue too. At one point I had about 200,000 tracks that I had archived, but after one hard drive failure after another, I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t help but wonder if it’d just be easier to subscribe to a rhapsody type service. If I could keep the mp3, I’d probably ditch my collection and use the net exclusively, but Rhapsody only plays on certain players and I don’t want to have to hassle with updating my phone once a month just to keep my favorite songs on them. I did try out Rhapsody for a month when they had their free TiVo offer and found that I really liked being able to stream any song at a moment whim. For years, I spent an embarassing amount of money chasing down b-sides from singles on Ebay and to all of a sudden have access to an entire discography from an artist was pretty cool. Had it been around in the late 90’s, it would have saved me a fortune. The only thing that keeps me from paying the subscription fees is the sunk cost on all of this music that I still have left. There isn’t enough time to listen to what I love, let alone explore new stuff, so it’s hard to justify paying anything when I have too much already (even after the hard drive failures.) Still the frustrations that come from tracking down album art (or creating it) and backing up a large mp3 collection has made keeping a non-drm collection almost more difficult then just throwing in the towel and paying a monthly fee to the RIAA goon squad.

  2. Jim says:

    I still purchase physical DVDs and CDs, so that’s where I currently am.

    I think that the answer to that question for me is “When I can play back anything at anytime on any device.”

    And for music, have randomized playlists for as well as rotations so that I can have a steady diet of music that is new to me, not quite as new to me and older music sprinkled in.

    I’m not so worried about things like album art, but I still think that we’re a few years away from a bandwidth / storage solution so that no compression is needed. At that point, I might be tempted to get rid of my essential CDs.

    That said, I also subscribe to eMusic, and I would consider my TiVo/Cable combination a subscription.

    And Netflix.

  3. Kirk says:

    @Davis: You lost 200,000 tracks? Ouch! You need one of these. Preferably with 4 TB drives.

    @Jim: Does the “anytime, anywhere, on any device” rule apply only to devices that you currently own, or is that a broader rule that applies to devices you *might* own at some point in the future. If the latter, then your rule is basically “must be DRM-free”.


  1. […] Digital Content in an Ownership Society: This was in response to an open question on the TOC blog regarding digital ownership vs. digital subscriptions. This isn’t so much a Kindle article as a discussion of the various issues faced when choosing between buying and renting digital content. While I don’t go into great detail on Kindle books, I do consider Kindle downloads to be a form of rental. The restrictions are such that consumers simply don’t have the same freedom they would with a print edition. As a result, I think it’s safe to view any Kindle purchase as a form of temporary ownership, at best. […]