Subscriptions, Sonos, and the Second Coming

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This week I've written and talked a bit about subscription music services--sparked by Napster offering a new pricing plan that allows unlimited streaming and five DRM-free 256kbps MP3 files per month. I ended my look at the new Napster this way:

Rough edges aside, if you're in the habit of purchasing at least five tracks a month from iTunes, I can't imagine why you wouldn't get them from Napster so you can take advantage of its streaming service for no additional charge--even if you barely use that service--as well as avoid the whole variable pricing kerfuffle. The MP3 files are of good quality, DRM-free (though, like iTunes content, are watermarked), and compatible with iPods, iPhones, and Apple TVs. And if you choose to not purchase another track per month from Napster, at the very least it gives you the ability to audition entire songs and albums before purchasing them elsewhere. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Yet no brainer or no, this was met with the usual resistance (and yes, from people who've never actually used such a service):

Subscriptions are an expensive luxury in a dreadful economy.

Really? $5 a month is what separates you from your mortgage payment? I'd first think about turning down the AC, forgoing a double-latte once a month, and maybe dropping some of those premium cable channels.

I want to own, not rent my music.

You can. With Napster you get five downloads per month that you can keep for ever and ever. Choosing one way of obtaining music does not exclude the other.

Today's music stinks and I own everything I will ever need to.

You may recall how popular disco was in the 70s yet you somehow managed to find music you liked then. Today's no different.

I don't want to listen to music on my computer. I want it on my iPod, on my stereo, and in my car.

Now there you have me. Of course you do. And so do I.

I'm covered as far as iPod and automobile go as I have a solid library of music I've ripped from CD and purchased. But music throughout the house is trickier. And, under normal circs, subscription is no answer.

In the era that I'll term PSMRS (for Pre-Sonos-Multi-Room-Music-System) I had a Rhapsody subscription and sometimes wouldn't touch it for weeks at a time. It was always available to me, of course, via my Web browser, but much of the time when I'm sitting at my computer I'm working, and music interferes with my concentration. And when I'm away from my computer... well, I'm away from the computer so can't access Rhapsody.

Then along comes the Sonos system and it completely changed the way I listen to music and use subscription services. Because the Sonos units attach to speakers throughout my home, I'm not tethered to my computer--music fills the house, not my office, as Apollo intended. And because they stream music not only from my iTunes library but from services such as Rhapsody, Napster, Pandora, and (as well as Internet radio streams) I'm never at a loss for something to listen to.

With a Sonos setup (and an iPhone or iPod touch to control it via Sonos' free Sonos Controller app), subscription makes complete sense. I've found that I play far more music, discover scads more artists that interest me, and often dash to Rhapsody or Napster to play music I already own because it's easier to find it there than in my iTunes library (and don't get me started on the 1,200 LPs that I haven't ripped).

Sonos + subscription is the killer household music setup. But at around $500 to get started (a Sonos ZonePlayer 90 plus ZoneBridge 100, assuming you have powered speakers and an iPhone or iPod touch to control everything) I understand that it's not cheap. I also understand that it's exactly the kind of thing that's necessary to make subscription services a desirable option for most people.

Which leads me to Apple. Suppose Apple had a small, Internet-friendly media box that attached to TVs and AV receivers or could act as standalone music gateways attached to powered speakers or a stereo receiver. Suppose that box could talk to small AirPort Base Stations that bore audio outputs and each unit could play different music at the same time. Suppose Apple made an iPhone/iPod touch application that allowed you to see and control the contents of your music library as well as that of the iTunes Store. Suppose Apple put these pieces together and opened the doors to that iTunes Store for a small monthly fee.

Do you suppose many of the people so adamantly opposing today's subscription services would hail it as the Second Coming?

This story, "Subscriptions, Sonos, and the Second Coming" was originally published by Macworld.

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