Spotify: The Death Of Ownership?

A few weeks ago I received an invite to use Spotify during its beta-testing phase. For the unfamiliar, Spotify is a new-to-the-US streaming subscription music service. Basically, it grants the subscriber access to a million-song strong (and growing) catalogue of music for immediate streaming. The more you’re willing to pay monthly, the more you have access to (ranging from ten hours listening per month with limited advertisement interruptions to unlimited listening to downloading capabilities). And judging by all the hoopla, Spotify looks poised to blow, to be the “next” big thing. With that comes a multitude of industry implications and questions from artist and label royalties to distribution rights to how to meaningfully measure album sales. But the question that I’m most intrigued by is whether the birth of Spotify means the death of ownership.

The general premise for the death of ownership argument is that convenience in the form of access will forever trump actual ownership (this premise is essentially the same one posited when iTunes, iPods and Kindles broke onto the scene, although the “death” in that case is of physical media). That instant access to just about any song you can imagine trumps the ability to call the song your own. And there is a part of me that buys into this argument, that thinks that this shift to streaming is the inevitable outcome, based on the “all I know” theory, which is a theory I just made up right now and it is pretty much what it sounds like. If Spotify (or at least the Spotify model) takes off, for kids that grow up with it as the dominant form of music consumption it will be all they know, and observing a different and less convenient form of consumption just wouldn’t make any sense to them. Take encyclopedias, for example. In the 70s and 80s, you would be hard-pressed to find a home in America that didn’t have a set of encyclopedias somewhere in the house. How else would you figure out the capitol of Ghana or the difference between chlorophyll and chloroplast? Heck, there was even an entire industry devoted to the door to door sales of encyclopedias (and a classic episode of Friends where Joey wants to seem smarter and decides to buy an encyclopedia set but can only afford the “V” volume…hilarity ensues). But you’d be equally hard-pressed to find a child born in the 90s who has ever even used an encyclopedia. And why would they? They have Google and Wikipedia. Worlds and worlds of information at the touch of a key. It’s greater access and convenience. Now if Spotify manages to fill this same role, once the current generation of oldsters (including myself) that grew up during the cassette and CD revolutions are gone, what would be the point of ownership to the “all I know is Spotify” generation when all the music they could ever want is just an internet connection and a click away?

But then there’s this other part of me. This part of me that just doesn’t see it happening. First of all, with Spotify you’re beholden to a connection. If you’re listening at home where there’s a computer and an internet connection, this may not be a big deal. But if the internet is out, so is your music collection. If you’re mobile, where wi-fi or 3g is spotty, you may have even more problems. Interruptions in internet connection means interruptions in listening. No reception means no music. And while that risk may be small, for many that’s a deal breaker. Especially when the alternative is being able to carry around an 80 gig iPod that can carry more music than you could reasonably listen to with a guarantee of no interruptions and total access to your library at any time. Second of all, with Spotify you’re beholden to the copyright holders. If you have Spotify right now, go ahead and search for Led Zeppelin. Or the Beatles. Nothing will come up but bad covers and karaoke versions. The truth of the matter is that any band at any time can simply refuse to deal with Spotify. While it’s true that the smaller the band, the less negotiation power they may have and the less wise it may be to limit the public’s access to their music, the fact remains that if a band or even a label feels Spotify is not in the band’s best interest, Spotify is out of luck.  Third, a listener that puts all of his or her chips in Spotify’s streaming subscription is going to be out of luck if Spotify goes under. The months worth of subscription fees you have paid for will remain useful only so long as Spotify keeps its software and servers running. The day those stop running, for whatever reason, is the day the listener no longer has any music to listen to (not to mention the subscription money paid thus far is gone for good).

Although I’ve barely scratched the surface of this debate, it’s something that continues to intrigue me. Spotify as a supplemental method of music consumption seems inevitable. But it seems unnatural as humans to be content to exclusively “borrow” when it comes to something that we so intimately identify with. We are collectors by nature, and whether it’s jewelry or clothes or stamps or comics or music, I think having something to call our own will always trump convenience.

Chris aims to expose viewers to some of the most legit tunes of the times, peeling back the layers of what’s relevant in current music events, with up-to-date posts of new artists and releases. Living in Chicago, Chris manages his own blog dedicated to new music releases, clips of new musicians, and announcements of upcoming shows at cool venues.