I Am Getting Old

At 31 years old, I can’t exactly consider myself “old” in the traditional sense. But in the world of technology, I sometimes find myself moving in a contradictory direction from the flow of “progress” in terms of some tech trends. Probably the most noticeable trend I find myself bucking is audio streaming. Not so much the streaming technology itself (of which I am a big fan), but the idea that you are essentially ‘renting’ the music.

My experience with a paid music streaming service has been exclusive to Apple Music, so take that for what you will. I know Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, etc. all have unique aspects that differentiate from one another, but I think my argument would still hold for each of those as well. But before I delve into why I think these services offer less to me than the alternative of buying albums outright, let me first mention what I think are the major benefits of such services.

  • The casual listener: if you just like listening to music in general but don’t have any particular attachment to songs after they have faded from the Top 40, there’s a nice benefit to music-as-a-service that provides tunes to listen to without the commitment of actually having to like anything enough to purchase it.
  • Experiencing new music: this is a big benefit to streaming – a wide selection of freely playable music that you would otherwise never listen to. I have found this to be the most rewarding aspect of Apple Music, but not quite to the extent that I thought it would change the type(s) of music I regularly listen to. I had hoped an unlimited selection of music would greatly expand my musical palate, but I find myself gravitating towards the familiar more often than not. My age probably pre-disposes me to be less-open to new music genres or artists.
  • Cash-strapped Millennials: for those living paycheck-to-paycheck or otherwise not having the budget to buy music on a regular basis, you get a lot of bang for your buck with a streaming service. It makes a lot of sense why young people (that sounds so weird to not really include myself in that category anymore) like inexpensive streaming services.
  • Non-techies: This idea is a little unconventional, but bear with me. The process of collecting, curating, and managing a large music library has become a daunting challenge for the non-technical even with relatively consumer friendly applications such as iTunes (ok, well maybe less friendly than it used to be). Why worry about managing thousands of music files across multiple computers and mobile devices when a simple app can consolidate all of your music and playlists so that you can access it anywhere? Apple’s iTunes Match offers a “cloud” library of this sort separate from the paid Apple Music streaming service, but still requires management of locally-stored files. For the non-techie, having everything accessible in a simple app can be a lot less work.

So, there are definitely some benefits to streaming audio services. But here’s the real kicker for me: while I know that companies are supposed to respond to consumer demand to create valuable services that consumers want, does that mean it is a better deal for consumers than the existing model? Think about that for a moment. Just because it might seem more affordable to have a monthly bill for streaming music rather than buying albums outright, does the average consumer of these services spend more or less than they otherwise would on purchasing albums?

Depending on how much music you would otherwise buy, that answer could point in favor of streaming or in favor of purchasing albums. For myself, I think I’ve spent more per month on streaming through Apple Music than I would have purchasing albums. But as I mentioned before, I am getting old so that might be a function of age as much as personal preference.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment: “But Curtis, what about the extra value provided by having unlimited access to such a wide variety of music? Surely that’s worth the additional money.” And that’s a fair point. If you listen to a lot of music and enjoy the added variety that streaming provides over purchasing albums, then streaming might be the better option.

So, let me boil it down to the three points that I think are most significant to my decision to stop streaming music for now and return to the ancient ways of purchasing albums:

  • Long-term costs: when you buy an album, you retain the rights to use the music for as long as you live. Upfront costs might be more, but once you’ve purchased an album you don’t have to keep paying for it each month to access it. If you really like the music you stream, are you prepared to keep paying for the rest of your life to access it?
    • Ignoring the time value of money for the moment, let’s do a quick calculation. Say you pay $9.99 for a single-user subscription to Spotify Premium. Over the course of 30 years (probably longer than Spotify will ever exist), you would be paying about $3,600 in streaming fees to listen to music.  Do you think you would actually buy that much money’s worth of music in that time frame? If you instead bought a new album for $14.99 every other month for the same 30 years, it would ‘only’ cost about $2,700. That’s still a lot of music. But if you bought one new album every month for 30 years, it would cost about $5,400 so streaming would be the cheaper option. It’s worth thinking about for the long-term implications, as the difference between one album purchase at $14.99 and one month’s streaming cost of $9.99 is relatively insignificant by itself.
  • Switching costs: this is one that a lot of people probably don’t think much about, but related to the long time horizon mentioned above. What happens when you decide to switch from Spotify to Apple Music, for example? Granted, there will likely be some overlap in content, but with exclusive deals with different providers you can lose access to music when switching to a different service (or have to add on the cost of buying the album outright).
  • The precious few: this is more psychological than financial, but at least in my own sample size of one I find that I am much more likely to listen to an album multiple times if I have purchased it than if I just stream it. It also causes me to make my music selections carefully and not buy something I might not like after a few listens. I have of course regretted buying some albums in the past, so it’s not a one-to-one ratio.

Phew, that’s a lot digital prose spent on the topic. But I think it is worth considering especially as we transition into an age of X-as-a-Service for a lot of what we previously bought outright (or borrowed money to buy). Uber (transportation-as-a-service) and Netflix (movies-as-a-service) are other good examples of this transition away from owning something (a car or movies) to renting.

So while I fight against the tide on music streaming in a likely futile attempt to own the music I listen to, I do understand that such behavior is likely the result of the following: I am getting old.

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