Owning content different experience than renting it

It would seem people are becoming particularly favourable to renting as opposed to owning when it comes to content such as music and books.

Last month Amazon announced (subscribers only) a new service in the U.S. called Kindle Unlimited that will give e-reader users unlimited access to its library of more than 600,000 books for about $10 a month.

Kindle Unlimited follows a similar model to that of music streaming services, one of the latest of which to enter Canada is Spotify.

Market experts have no doubt found a sizeable proportion of the population would rather pay a periodic, modest fee for constant access to music or literary content than a higher, one-time price for ownership of that product for eternity, or at least for as long as you can avoid destroying or losing it.

Justin Erdman, managing director for Canada of music streaming service Deezer, described this as a move toward a “rentership society” in May during a House of Commons committee hearing looking at the music industry.

The subscription/rental model’s benefits include the flexibility of trying different things and, if they’re not to your liking, moving on to something else. In the old days, there was a risk that after slapping down anywhere between $15 and $40 for a book or CD, you might find yourself disappointed.

Some, however, likely find that owning content, rather than renting it, is more economically advantageous.

For instance, Kindle Unlimited works out to about $120 a year. It’s not a huge amount of money, but everything adds up — mortgages, rent, electricity, heat, Internet, cellphone costs, etc.

With the generally cheap price of e-books anyway, opportunities to get books for occasions such as birthdays and Christmas, as well as wanting to occasionally re-read old material, many readers might find they can get away with spending less than $120 a year on literature. And if you do put out that much money for books, perhaps you’d like the privilege of being able to lend people material you’ve found particularly insightful or titillating.

As for music, I’ve gathered up a quite a bit over my lifetime. The free streaming service I sometimes use is not on-demand, though you can control what you’re listening to within a pretty narrow range. When I use this service, about 90 per cent of the songs that come up, as a result of my preferences, are ones I already own. Why pay for a streaming service that, I imagine, wouldn’t be too far off that mark?

I’m not sure if I’m too old, or new music just isn’t very good, but I don’t feel the need to sample every new song that’s released. If something good comes out, I’m sure I’ll hear about it on Nikki Sixx’s syndicated radio show. Plus, iTunes and YouTube present plenty of opportunities to sample before buying. If a song’s good enough, I don’t mind paying the $1 iTunes fee for the track or buying the whole album to get even more bang for my buck.

And there’s always the traditional radio for giving you that random, who-knows-what-I’ll-get kind of listening experience. As we noted back in March, Internet streaming has not killed the radio star just yet.

Admittedly, some of the arguments favouring ownership of content over renting are easily countered. For example, you might be uncomfortable relying on the proper functioning of a content providers’ database, not to mention your Internet service provider, to ensure anytime access to books or music. What if something’s not working when you want it to? Well, that happens to TV service and electricity sometimes, and the world hasn’t ended yet.

What if a content provider goes out of business with no contingency plan for how to ensure your access to the literature and music you love? Yeah, that would suck, but so would a house fire or flood that destroys all your books and CDs. There are risks all around.

Still, there’s something about owning a book or work of music — even when it’s electronic as opposed to a physical version — that represents an intellectual or emotional commitment to a creation and, not to mention, says something about you. Some find bookshelves and CD racks visually unappealing. I say you can learn a lot about a person by looking at theirs, as you can by checking out what they have on their e-readers or iPods.

I remember buying vinyl records and cassette tapes as a kid, and CDs later in my teens. It would take me weeks, in some cases, to save up the $10 to $20 they would cost. But the whole process was quite special, right from taking them home, peeling off the plastic wrap and parental-guidance stickers to checking out the front and inside artwork of the album. I would listen to each track as I followed along with the printed lyrics and checked out who wrote what song, who played what instruments and what kind of guest stars were featured on certain songs. Even if that album wasn’t what I thought it would be before the purchase, I would force myself to like it, given the investment I had made.

Perhaps there’s a different kind of thrill that’s gained from the all-you-can consume subscription models that are taking over. But it’s not apparent enough yet to convince me.

Derek Abma is editor of The Wire Report. He can be reached at dabma@thewirereport.ca.

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