Why I'm Not Buying a Music Subscription Service Yet

Music is moving into the cloud, right? Access is replacing ownership of albums and song files, online streams are replacing desktop playback, and mobile access is renewing interest in on-demand music subscriptions.Older services such as Rhapsody and Napster now appear prescient, although they never quite went mainstream, and newer ones such as Spotify and MOG are attracting big venture capital dollars.

So how come I'm still not ready to pay for any of them?

I'm a voracious music listener, one with varied but quite specific tastes. As such, I own a large collection of albums and songs in both physical and digital form. After taking several different subscription services for a test-drive, I found that they provide a good—but still very flawed—experience. Here are five reasons why:

Significant gaps remain in the catalog. As I've noted, the services may offer all you can eat, but their menus aren't always complete and they keep changing. It's frustrating to pay for a service that doesn't have songs you want—and even more frustrating when songs that used to be there aren't anymore.

I still can't merge things I own with things I just want to stream. Nearly all music fans have songs in their collections that aren't on any subscription service. The songs could be from an unlicensed mashup, your friend's band, the Beatles, or Led Zeppelin. But there's still no subscription service that lets me make a party playlist that includes both Beach House and the Beatles. I choose not to own the former, and I've got MP3s of the latter, but I can't have them both side-by-side.(Spotify, for one, may be working on a remedy for this, but as far as I know it hasn't gone live anywhere yet.)

Ownership of music still provides a smoother listening experience. Try listening to Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon or any live album with applause between songs on these services, and you might start looking for your CD player. When the next song doesn't load fast enough to pick up where the previous one leaves off, you'll hear an abrupt silence—a major turnoff during album-length pieces with continuous "banded" tracks that run together. When I use iTunes, there's sometimes an audible seam but no pause, with an option to crossfade; physical formats have no such issues. In this respect, the cloud-based experience can be a degraded one.

I can only share music with fellow subscribers. If playlists are the new mixtapes, as Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said this week at SXSW, I'd like to share them with my friends. In a market as fragmented as music-as-a-service is shaping up to be, play list sharing won't be that compelling until we're all using the same service—or at the very least, compatible ones. This isn't as big an issue when there's a free component, as with Spotify and Rhapsody. But in general, until a critical mass of my friends are subscribing, there will be better ways to share. (I miss you, Imeem. You too, Muxtape.) The MP3 file is very flexible; cloud-based subscriptions still aren't.

I can still hear things I don't yet own without paying for them. I've already got a lot of music and there are still new records I'd prefer to own, for which I will happily pay. (You might be different.) I can also hear an awful lot of on-demand free music via both legitimate and legally questionable channels: Hype Machine, Lala.com, Grooveshark, Play.me, YouTube, Blip.fm, FreeAllMusic, BeeMP3.com, Skreemr, MySpace, and elsewhere.Pandora and Last.fm help me discover things through a sort of customized serendipity, while the blogosphere provides curated discovery.Yes, an on-demand subscription gives me more, sometimes in a better-quality experience.But for things I might not choose to own, free options are still good enough.(Remember, more than 95% of Spotify's users think the free version is good enough, too.)

Music subscriptions are improving, and I imagine that most of my quibbles will be dealt with over time. (See my further discussion of the services in this GigaOM Pro piece, subscription required.) For now, I view subscription services as supplementary —not primary—sources of music, and they haven't done much to change my preference for a hybrid of music ownership and free options.

As I said, I'm a voracious music listener with varied but quite specific tastes. If the subscription services' numbers are any indication, there are millions of subscribers out there who are quite satisfied with what they're buying. I'd love to hear more about how subscriptions work for you—or don't.

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