Music: Rent v Buy


It seems to me that many of the recent articles discussing the future of music deal with the “rent” versus` “buy” conundrum as a business model.What do the people want?Do they want to pay more to own their music or a monthly fee to rent, like cable TV?Everyone seems willing to advance a theory, often one connected to their vested interests.

Apple has straddled the fence well with their “lease” model.When you purchase an iTunes download you are neither buying or renting.Sure, it feels like buying because they tell you that you “own” it, but in fact it’s a lease of sorts, just like your apartment. You feel like it’s yours but in fact it you’re only buying partial ownership.

When you buy a CD you can play it on as many devices as you like for as long as you own the physical product.This is true even if you bought the product in 1979 (year of the CD).That’s over 20 years of true ownership for about $15 for 12 songs.Now, if you think that any iTunes single you pay 99 cents for today will be playable on devices that Apple invents in 20 years, then I have some 78 records I’d like to unload on you.

Planned obsolescence and digital technology is a match made in capitalism heaven and iTunes is the most successful of the “new models” simply because of that.It feels like ownership, but it’s not.

What will the future of music ownership look like?No one knows for sure.I for one do not see the “cloud model” we’ve heard about lately as sustainable.In this one respect I tend to agree with Bob Lefsetz. People like to own stuff.The like to touch it and pull it off their shelf and say—“I got this at…”It’s not like movies, in my view, as many of the cloud proponents want us to believe.Music is different.It’s special in some way that words can not describe.People don’t seem to care about owning movies.They just consume them and repeat their classic punch lines at poker games.Music stays with us.

When I was in college people used to use their 12” album covers to clean pot. You can’t clean pot on a hard drive.

Just a quick thought for the day from your artist’s right’s advocate, Moses Avalon.

22 responses to “Music: Rent v Buy”

  1. Chuck Hughes says:

    Yes, and the rough-textured album jackets were the best for pot cleaning. They held the leaves but let the seeds roll. I remember a King Crimson album, but have trouble remembering the others 😉

  2. Peter Jenner says:

    I think the market will become much more segmented. Those who want a background noise will want an inexpensive option. The minority who really have a music problem will buy hard carriers and rent and get all sorts of services. Super fanatics will be getting packages for enormous amounts, limited and numbered.How much would a silicon valley millionaire pay for a signed limited edition of the multi track of their favourite song by their favourite artist. There are real rembrandts and there are posters of rembrandts.

  3. MichaelO says:

    It seems that music ownership is at the forefront of issues regarding intellectual property in general, a longstanding and perhaps most profitable product/export of the USA. In this land of the free, the ease of “sharing” on the internet is changing the whole world. I am hopeful that our capitalist consumer system will gently soften to become less cut-throat competitive and more loving caring cooperative. We are One, after all.

  4. Jeff Brown says:

    You own iTunes store music just as much as you do a CD. DRM has been gone since the recording industry finally relented at the end of last year. Nearly every portable player on the market today plays AAC audio, it’s the same standard used in digital radio. Will AAC audio be succeeded by something else in ten years? twenty? Who knows? Though uncompressed CD audio is probably still the preferred route for purists with stereos that cost more than their cars. If they can ever leave vinyl behind.

    • Moses Avalon says:

      Not really. The definition of DRM has been messed with a bit, but DRM is still in every iTunes “sale.” It’s not the sever one that prevents export to other systems, but it does keep a fingerprint on transfers. This information will someday be used for god-knows-what.

  5. Adam says:

    I agree with P. Jenner about the coming range of commercialism – from cheaper downloads to stratospherically priced raw tracks in original form. Why wouldn’t at least some bands/companies open up the market that wide? Hey, for 20 grand, you can remix our multi-platinum CD in your own home!

    Or how about ten years down the road seeing $150.- downloads of the raw tracks to “Satisfaction”, complete with instrumentation that never made it in the final mix? If you can think of it, it just may happen one day.

    As for the particular attraction of music to some, I see one stand out characteristic that sets music apart from all other creative fields – it has to be experienced in real time.

    While you can pause a movie and look at a freeze frame, hang a painting on the wall and look at it whenever you please, music can only be experienced through direct interaction, or it passes by quickly into the past.

    Sure you can rewind, or loop a short segment – but you can’t pause music, for the act of ‘stopping’ it to take a closer ‘look’ eliminates the entire experience from your current reality. It’s an all or nothing proposition.

    I know for me, there are songs and albums that are almost like actual places to me. Sometimes while watching a movie, I’ll pause it to look at a particular frame – with sound, you have a fluid interaction, or there is no interaction at all.

    That’s an integral factor for me – and that’s why I will always want to own a hard copy of my favourite CDs. When your plane crashes on a desert island and all you have left is your solar-powered laptop, what would you rather have, a couple of your favourite discs, or your soon-to-be-canceled-for-non-payment subscription to a music service?

  6. J Gamble says:

    That nut Chris Anderson was on Charlie Rose last night…Free as a viable business model 🙁 Bah Humbug-here is Malcolm Gladwell’s take-I concur:

  7. urbn says:

    “You own iTunes store music just as much as you do a CD. ”

    No it is not. With a CD I have a physical copy of the music I bought. I can duplicate it incase its destroyed, lost or stolen. With Itunes This is not the case.

    There have been huge changes with the music industry in just the last 3 years more so then anyone would expect. Now days bands do not bother putting out albums (ok not all musicans, there are still some “artists” out there) but instead focus on putting out singles. With singles there isn’t the hassle of making anything then a song and having a marketing team just market it. No more physical copies, art, lyrics, distro’s or window shopping.

    Music is now comparable to televisions sets. quality dosen’t matter any longer. Its marking and branding and people will buy it.

    Thankefully independent musicans are able to take advantage of this situation but it still brings down the quality of music people seem to come out with these days.

  8. Dave Allen says:


    You say that “people” want to “own” music. I disagree unless you mean anyone over 30 years old. Kids are not into the tactile nature of album sleeves and such nor are they into “owning” music, they want access to it..the cloud is sustainable. Here’s my thoughts on the end of the music album as the organizing principle:

    • Moses Avalon says:

      Ah, yes. But kids one day become adults. And adults still like to own stuff. Want proof? Best Buy, Costco, etc. We want to own stuff so bad, we’ll stand in line for hours for something we’ll probably throw out in a few months. The horror. The horror.

  9. Ken Whisler says:

    I love my iPod, but what part of “fair use” does Apple not get?

    The import version of “Foxtrot” by the Gabriel line up of Genesis was the best album cover to clean pot on.

  10. Axel says:

    I don’t know how old everyone is reading and writing comments here, but my guess is older than 20, perhaps even 25.

    I’m in the latter group, and forgiving me for pointing out the obvious, but the present (13-20) and future (5-12) generations couldn’t care less about “holding” or “owning” the product like the rest of us once did/still do.

    And yes, music is far more engrained in one’s memorial subtext (anyone who’s ever scored a movie will recognize this as the temp track phenomenon), but frankly, when I was younger, I didn’t have as much access to music as there is now. There is so much available now (on and off the market, if you know what I mean) that I’m afraid music will leave a much smaller imprint in the younger generations’ memories than it has in ours.

    My point, supposing I have one: it’s very possible we’re looking at this from a passé vantage point and that neither renting or owning music is how music will be “consumed” (sorry, it’s a sad fact) and DRM may very well soon cease to be a hot topic as the music resellers struggle to retain the attention of the undiscerning teenage masses.
    I believe the better way to look at this topic is to ask, “what is the path of least resistance?” because that is the path billions of teenagers will engulf themselves in.

  11. Larry says:

    Hard drives don’t have trippy artwork inside them, either! Those were the daze . . .

  12. Dave Allen says:


    The younger generations of music lovers (I have 3 teenagers 16, 17 and 19) do not collect music the way previous generations did. Your “proof” re Costco and Best Buy is more about stuff and gadgets than it is about music. Do you remember when record stores had lines around the block on Tuesday’s at midnight? It’s been a while hasn’t it?

    Over-priced Cds full of filler and the RIAA’s campaign against music fans and their parents, turned a whole generation of music buyers away from physical products. This doesn’t make them all pirates but it did teach them that music is easy to access. Of course they will grow up to become adults but don’t expect their music consumption habits to change. Only adults of my generation were stupid enough to believe the hype and switch from vinyl to CD, only to switch back again.And now we can add in the convenience of mobile ubiquity and access to music from the cloud…

    • Moses Avalon says:


      So, only adults of your generation are vivacious consumers; tomorrow’s generation will be smarter? We’ll see. Right now your “smart” generation is paying far more for music than we ever did. 99 cents to “lease” a song for the amount of time it takes to obsoletize (sp) the device you play it on, sounds a whole lot “dumber” than spending $9 at a used record store for a greatest hits record and owning all 14 tracks DRM free for life. And speaking of used records and the (vanishing) lines around the block at record stores… they’re still there. Have you been to Amoeba Records on a Friday or Saturday night? Packed with “dumb” consumers, stupidly buying 100s of CD and LPs. Even in this economy. What are they thinking (smiles). I was the only journalist/bloger to interview used record store owners last year while the main stream press was taking the RIAAs word for it that sales were down. No surprise to me or my readers, the used record stores saw 0% effect on their sales, where as the RIAA reported a 12% drop.

  13. Ron Kempton says:

    OK I’m 53 years old and whenever I comment to my students or on a web sight I always sound like one of those “in my day” old guys. However, at that risk, The fun seems gone, I used to spend hours at Tower Records combing the racks for the great albums! you know the albums that you listened to all the way through. All that is gone, the artists are cyber space someone’s and CD’s seem like even they are on the edge of obscurity. I love to read so I spend lots of time at Barns and Noble. On my last trip I noticed the CD’s have been pushed into the corner and movies rule the racks! I like going forward but it just doesn’t seem as fun as Going on a midnight raid to Tower with you’re buddies and then sitting in someone’s smoky room and listening to “The Grateful dead” or whatever. Sorry for the stroll down memory lane, But when I read the rent or buy article I felt sad for music. RK TBBC

    • Moses Avalon says:

      You don’t sound like an old fart to me. You sound like someone who is a fan of both music and music as culture. And it’s true that as music becomes more intangible (i.e.: MP3s, etc) it will lose much of it’s cultural significance. But the trade off is that master rights holders will probably be making a lot more money in the long run.

  14. mike says:


    once again you are wrong, I just cleaned some NYC sour diesel on my hard drive and it went off without a hitch…

    Mike Esterson CFO
    Money Maker Entertainment
    Vice President Mi5 recordings

  15. Dave Allen says:


    I think you are mangling my message for your own results. I never used the words ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’ and the midnight sales lines on Tuesday nights at stores all over the country are no longer…Amoeba is one of the success stories as far as sales trends go but you ignored my point.
    You have also moved the discussion to the difference between indie and major sales so I’m no longer sure of what your target for discussion is. But for used stores not feeling the downturn of their, ostensibly, artist robbing business, I’d say ask Everyday Music here in Portland how it’s going…last time I asked sales were dire.
    I’ll address “owning” music. Why do you believe that digital youth will want to “own” any entertainment media? Once true mobile ubiquity, via 3G or 4G or beyond arrives, your sentence “99 cents to “lease” a song for the amount of time it takes to obsoletize (sp) the device you play it on” will make even less sense than it does now. A MP3 isn’t “rendered obsolete” just because a device might be.
    Technology and its advances are messy but if say a playback device changes or goes away, something will always take its place. Those 78’s you mention are still playable on a device that spins at 78RPM, vinyl and record players still exist even though CDs and then MP3s came along and MP3s will remain playable whatever the next generation of MPEG layers become or are replaced.
    Finally, you are mixing up actual digital youth consumption habits today with the idea of planned obsolescence, capitalism and whether one owns an iTunes file or not. You act as if all of this is a problem for the youth of today and I suspect it’s not – they have come of age during one of the most tumultuous periods of change and technological breakthroughs in many decades. They have learned to adapt very quickly.

    • Moses Avalon says:

      “you are mixing up actual digital youth consumption habits today with the idea of planned obsolescence, capitalism and whether one owns an iTunes file or not.”

      Mixing up? No. Unifying them maybe. But I do believe that there is a relationship.

      “A MP3 isn’t “rendered obsolete” just because a device might be.”

      Wow!. Well, we’ll just to have to weigh in on that one every five years or so to see who wins this argument.

  16. Barbara Clarkson says:

    Barbara Clarkson…

    […]s I got what you will, thanks for putting up. Woh I am willing to pronounce t ar[…]…

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