Your Virtual Library

A profile of new Columbia Records honcho Rick Rubin has spurred quite a discussion in the blogs over the future of music. In particular, this paragraph:

“You would subscribe to music,” Rubin explained, as he settled on the velvet couch in his library. “You’d pay, say, $19.95 a month, and the music will come anywhere you’d like. In this new world, there will be a virtual library that will be accessible from your car, from your cellphone, from your computer, from your television. Anywhere. The iPod will be obsolete, but there would be a Walkman-like device you could plug into speakers at home.”

People have taken this to mean that Rubin is forecasting the end of the iPod and very bad news for Apple. But, of course, there’s no reason why Apple can’t shift with the tides. John Gruber explains:

The iPod as we know it might be obsolete in such a world, but why couldn’t the Walkman-like device that plays the subscription music be an iPod? I’ve been saying this for years: just because Apple hasn’t engaged in subscription-based plans for music yet doesn’t mean they couldn’t. And if they did it now, theirs would be more popular than all existing ones combined.

This would, of course, be a titanic shift for Apple. In some ways, Apple’s decision to sell music a la carte makes it the last of the old media companies. That may be one reason why they’ve been so successful: they’ve taken a well-known business transaction (customer pays store $10, customer receives album) and adapted it for the digital age. They’re still selling a discrete product (downloads instead of CDs or vinyl), and not trying to introduce customers to a new paradigm (monthly subscription). Buying music from the iTunes store is a familiar experience.

But down the road, as customers are slowly weaned from the era of physical media, the subscription market may become more viable. Gruber thinks this a non-starter because of DRM (Digital Rights Management, a.k.a. copy protection):

But here’s the problem with subscription-based music: you can’t have it without DRM. Because without DRM, what’s to stop someone from subscribing for one month, downloading every song they might ever want, then unsubscribing but keeping the music? And the thing with DRM is that people hate it, because it restricts what they can do and where they can play their music. To argue that subscriptions are the future of music is to argue that DRM is the future of music, and the evidence points to the contrary.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s certainly the case that today, subscription-based services like Rhapsody download DRM-encoded music to your computer or MP3 player. But that’s just because the data networks are still too shaky to support true streaming. In 10 or 20 years, when cell phone networks are all blazing fast, your handheld device (the “Walkman-like device” that Rubin refers to) will be able to link up to a music service and stream your music in real time. This device will have no hard drive, no local storage (except maybe a buffer for when the cell signal is weak).