iTunes subscription service would have ups, downs

On several Internet sites, such as CNET, Mac Insider and Wired, rumors have started cropping up once again about a potential subscription service for Apple’s iTunes program.

The subscription service would basically entail a user paying about $130 per year to “rent” an unlimited amount of music from iTunes over the course of the year. When signed on through the subscription service, the option to “get” rather than “buy” would appear. For the songs that aren’t yet available through subscription, users would still have the option to buy. According to the widely spread online rumor, this service would launch sometime in October.

Historically, Steve Jobs has been notoriously against the idea of a subscription service, saying that “People want to own their music, not rent it.” When it comes down to it, the average member of iTunes has only downloaded approximately 22 songs, meaning iTunes users have only spent a little over $20 on their music library.

The question is, would iTunes users respond to the option to use iTunes as a subscription service similar to Rhapsody?

As for myself, I would jump at the chance to download as much music as I wanted and listen to it wherever I wanted. To me, if I can do those two things, it doesn’t really matter if I actually “own” the music. Especially since iTunes MP3s are infected with DRM files, there doesn’t seem to be a huge disadvantage to renting versus buying, especially now that there are so many devices that play an i-pod the way we used to play CDs.

However, assuming that the iTunes subscription rumors are even true, there are a few snags. First of all, as iTunes works out deals with record labels, only about half of the iTunes library would be immediately available. My question is: what half would be available? The Britney Spears half or the She & Him half? The rock half or the world music half? If I’m shelling out $130 a year, I want access to the entire gamut.

Another issue is what happens when the one-year subscription period is up. Do I have to re-download all of my previously selected songs? I would hope that as the subscription comes to an end, an option would become available that would allow me to simply re-subscribe, and the music library would remain unchanged.

In reality, iTunes would probably have to set some limit on the number of downloads possible through subscription. Otherwise, subscribers would download so much music that no record company would want to be a part of the system.

Of course, the subscription service would only be attractive to people who spend more than $130 per year on music. I probably spend about that amount, but this is supplemented by burned CDs from friends. I know, I know, musicians rights and all that, but the reality is that people on limited budgets who are eager for new music are going to engage in CD burning and swapping. Is this behavior so different from letting friends borrow books?

Given the option for a subscription service such as the rumored iTunes one, people would be less inclined to accept burned or otherwise pirated CDs, as we would have access to the opportunity to download and listen to the music ourselves, and legally.

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the ways we experience (some would say consume) music. We’ve progressed from LPs to CDs to MP3s, from Napster to itunes. There are more ways to get and collect music now than ever. Given competition from the DRM-free services such as Amazon MP3 downloads or the subscription services of Rhapsody, a subscription service may be the next step for iTunes in the rapidly changing world of digital music.

Sarai Brinker is a graduate student from Levelland.