eatIs ownership of media passé?

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed an interesting trend develop. It started with music, as “all-you-can-eat” services like Pandora and Spotify popped up to offer users a chance to listen to as much music as they wanted either free with advertising, or for a small monthly fee. Amazon, Google, and Apple soon followed suit.

Then came video, as the holy trinity of Netflix, Hulu, and (again) Amazon launched streaming video services for television and movies. Next, it moved into e-books, with Oyster, Scribd, and, yes, Amazon launching services. (Amazon doesn’t seem to have been a first mover in these ideas, but that sure hasn’t stopped it from adapting the heck out of them once someone else broke the ground.) Video games appear to be the next medium to spawn all-you-can-eateries, with nVidia. Utomik, Electronic Arts, Sony, and others poised to offer such services.

And it hasn’t stopped there, but has moved on to physical objects. There are “bikeshare” (really, short-term bike rental) programs in a dozen or more cities, and Indianapolis is just about to launch a similar system for electric cars. Why own a bike or car if you can rent one cheaply by the hour?

The Celestial Jukebox

If you wanted to trace the origin of the idea back, it probably goes back much further than Pandora and Spotify. “Warez” trading communities were founded on the idea of not bothering to own game software that you could download for free. Who needed physical media if it played just as well as zip files, eh?

The same don’t-bother-to-buy-a-disc philosophy spread into music when MP3 was invented, but it hit its apotheosis when Napster came about. Suddenly people were talking breathlessly about the idea of a “celestial jukebox,” the ability to reach out and listen to any music you wanted to from the cloud. (Sound familiar?) Of course, back then people expected Napster to grow into it on the strength of legal deals with record labels after its loss in court. (But then, they also expected AOL and Real, the other two companies with the same deal, to have an equal shot. Where are all three of those companies now?)

But record companies still hadn’t gotten their heads in the digital game yet. It would take the launch of the iPod in 2004 to get them selling digital music in a big way, including loosening up about selling songs individually rather than insisting on album-or-nothing—another step in the evolution of the non-ownership idea. And we have Apple to thank for the idea expanding even further after that, as the labels’ fear that Apple would build a monopoly on their business led to it granting competitors like Amazon and Google the right to sell that music DRM-free, which it eventually then granted to Apple too.

That still wasn’t the “celestial jukebox,” though. That idea would have to wait for services like Pandora—and you didn’t get the real “pick any song at any time” experience until services like Spotify. I don’t know whether Spotify was the first, but it was certainly a recognizable name. But by now, the idea is so common that many people might be more likely to subscribe to a jukebox of choice based on how well it fits in with the rest of the ecosystem they use (Amazon’s for Kindle owners, or Google’s for heavy Android and Gmail users like me) rather than an individual brand by itself.

The New Broadcasting Model

On the video side, Netflix started out as another way for people to avoid having to buy movies—renting them by mail—but were wise enough to know the growth of the Internet would soon render that model largely irrelevant, and moved into streaming as quickly as they could. (Redbox is another rental service that began with physical discs and has expanded into streaming, but not so far as Netflix has.) While other services dabbled in pay-per-movie streaming, Netflix knew people preferred keeping things simple and paying one price for everything. Although people scoffed at first, it certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt them in the long run, and before long other services were on board with the all-you-can-watch plan. Amazon used it as a further enticement to people to sign up with Amazon Prime, rather than for its own sake.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Netflix’s model is that it has led to a whole new way of producing television shows—production companies making a whole season at once for services like Netflix, and releasing them all at once for binge watching. While some people are less than thrilled by this new innovation, by and large most seem to love it. The most recent iteration of this philosophy, Marvel’s Daredevil, has gotten people talking about it all over again.

Netflix isn’t the only video service doing this. Amazon and Hulu have launched their own original series, and even services less traditionally associated with video have gotten into the act—Yahoo picking up the hit geeksploitation comedy Community and launching the new comedy Other Space, for example.

Of course, independent studios have been self-producing their own works and releasing them via online services like YouTube for quite a while. Red vs. Blue, The Guild, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, RWBY, and so on. But those were more like self-publishing, while the fully-produced series that the big services are doing are as if brand new Big Five-sized publishers had sprung into existence from nothing, practically overnight.

As Kevin Spacey said in 2013, this is bringing about a creative renaissance for TV show producers and viewers alike. No longer do they have to waste money creating a pilot as proof-of-concept, or have to put up with the fuzziness of TV ratings, or interrupt themselves every few minutes for a commercial. These services can tell exactly how many people watch how much of each show, without having to bother with Nielsen families. This is only the beginning of the trend, but it will be interesting to see how it looks in a few years. After all, just a few years ago, the idea of an online streaming service producing original programming was just as science-fictional as the “celestial jukebox” was in 2000.

All You Can Read

The idea of an all-you-can-read service is both newer and older than the rest. In fact, it’s one of the oldest. After all, what is a public library but an all-you-can-read service for physical books? You don’t even have to go down to the library in person anymore, with the advent of library e-books. You just have to wait until a digital copy is available to check out.

But that wasn’t enough for services like Oyster, Scribd, and Amazon’s “Kindle Unlimited” program. These programs all offer books from self-publishers and major publishers alike, at a monthly subscription cost similar to those of the music and movie services. You don’t “own” the books, but does that matter when you can read them any time you want to?

And this is not exactly a great leap from the idea of e-books in general. As many people point out whenever fair use is invoked around e-books, the major e-book vendors use licenses that say you don’t even “own” the e-books you buy from them—you’re just “licensing” them. So if you’re not going to be allowed to “own” them anyway, why pay for them individually?

While reviews of the services tend to be positive from readers’ point of view, it’s still up in the air whether they’re a good thing for writers.

The Flies in the Ointment

In fact, monetary compensation seems to be an issue for subscription services in general. Kindle Select is paying less per read than self-publishing writers could get from a sale. And artists’ dissatisfaction with the payout from Pandora and other online services is well-known.

But perhaps the authors and artists who don’t take part in such services should be more worried. As more people sign up for these services and make them their exclusive source of entertainment, there will be increasing reluctance to go outside the service for something else. After all, if they already have more stuff available to them than they can ever consume for what they’re already paying, why pay extra for a single work that’s not included—especially since the cost of a single book or movie would probably pay for a whole month of their service? If they really have to read or see it, they can probably get it from the library instead. (And there are other, less legitimate “free” sources, too. It’s even easier to talk yourself into feeling morally justified in pirating something if you’re already paying for a service than if you’re just watching free TV off the air.)

A version of this philosophy helped account for the decline in major publishers’ e-book sales after agency pricing was implemented, after all. Self-published books were still cheap and plentiful, so why pay $15 for a new bestseller when they could get something just as compelling for $5? They could get the bestseller at the library for free.

On the other hand, the selections of these services do run into limitations—especially the video services, with new movies and shows being added and old movies and shows falling out of availability all the time. It’s complicated enough that you have to use meta-search engines like Can I Stream It to find out where anything is at any given time, if it’s available at all. To obtain the widest possible selection of titles, you have to subscribe to more than one service. (I subscribe to all three streaming video providers, which is probably a waste of money for as little as I actually watch things on them, but just having that availability is worth something.) Even then, some titles are simply not available when you want them.

Then there’s the obvious fact that if you stop paying for these services, you lose access to their library, and then what do you have to show for all that money you spent? But then, you don’t exactly have anything to show for a movie or concert ticket, either. And if you’re concerned about not being able to pass your library on to friends or next of kin, well, you can’t do that with the digital media you “buy” either. So you might as well get more for your money.

What About the Future?

For all these flaws, we’re only seeing more of these services pop up, not fewer. They’re spreading to new media all the time—and to commonly-used objects like bikes and cars in the physical world. You just have to google “Netflix for [thing]” and odds are you’ll find something. (There’s even a “Netflix for pirates,” though evidence suggests that the legitimate services are cutting down on piracy just by making it so darned easy to obtain the media you want without having to risk computer viruses or copyright lawsuits.) We’ve got not only the “celestial jukebox,” but the celestial video rental store, library, game store, and who knows what else.

What does this mean for the future of physical media? Paper books aren’t going anywhere, of course—plenty of people still read them, and they have enough advantages that some always will. But as for music, it’s pretty clear that the compact disc is the last physical medium that’s going to be widely-adopted enough for mass market use, and even that may be on its way out as people have been increasingly turning to digital and streaming media for the last fifteen years.

Is there even going to be another iteration of physical movie media beyond Blu-ray, for the 4K TVs that come out? That’s a question that will probably be put off for several years, until those TVs come down enough more people own them. Unlike books and music, physical Blu-ray media at least offer a few things that the online services don’t so far, including 5.1 surround sound and a lot of special extra features. They also don’t require extensive bandwidth to stream. (Is it even going to be possible to stream 4K video without a higher-end broadband plan than most have available in the broadband-backward US?)

But Blu-rays are expensive enough that nobody’s ever going to be able to build up a library of them comparable to what they can get from Netflix. And who knows? By the time 4K video becomes commonplace, we may have good-enough broadband to support it, and streaming services might have evolved a way to convey all those extras, too. They might go some distance toward addressing the selection question, too.

And what does this mean for creators, like writers? The twin dilemmas of lower payouts from the services versus lower sales if they’re not on them mean that the more popular these services get, the less money creators might potentially make. But if the creators are squeezed too hard, they might turn to other lines of work that pay better. So some kind of balance is going to have to be reached to let these services continue. And this will almost certainly happen. These services are new enough to have a lot of issues that will be solved as time goes on.

While ownership of physical media might not be entirely “passé” just yet, it seems like it’s heading that direction more and more lately. These are certainly interesting times.


  1. I still buy books. I still buy DVDs. And will continue to, no matter how many rental services are available. I’m not going to pay for something that I can only use once. I’m not going to be tied to online companies that may or may not even have the item available at a future time.

  2. The biggest change that Spotify’s making in my music-buying habits is to make my purchase patterns more like my book-buying habits.

    I buy books. But I rarely buy a book without some information on whether I’ll like/use it: I’ve read other books by this author and liked them; I’ve read a review by someone whose tastes generally mesh with mine; I’ve checked the book out from the library and decided it’s worth having in my permanent collection.

    I do the same with DVDs. I don’t have a streaming movie service — I rarely have time to watch non-child-friendly movies, so it’s not worth the money. But if I’ve checked out a DVD from the library and enjoyed it, or if I’ve seen a movie in the theater and want to watch it over and over again, or if I’ve seen a TV show or TV movie and loved it, I’m buying. And occasionally I’ll buy a DVD sight unseen because of a trusted recommendation (and if I don’t like it, I’ll pass it along).

    Same with Spotify, now. I’m happy to listen to music in Spotify and pay via ads, and if I’m just curious about an artist or song, I’ll check it out there. But if I find I love the song, or I’m listening to the album over and over and over again? I’m buying my own copy, so I can be sure I’ll have access to it in the long term.

  3. The problem with libraries (even big one like Seattle) are limited selections and waiting lists. Yes, they have the bestsellers some other stuff, but if your tastes don’t include the popular or YA, you might have to buy anyway. And if they do have it, it might be checked out, and you have to go on a waiting list. Maybe waiting lists are ok for some people, but I’d rather just drop a saw buck and buy. Now and then, sure I’ll use the library, but it’s a nice sideline.

    Also buying is THAT expensive, IMHO. For example, my Audible subscription costs about $235 per year and I get 24 book credits up front. It’s worth the price to get the books you want when you want them at a fair price. Even if I only listen to each book once.

    Services like Kindle Unlimited have a few good books, but the selection is kind of thin. I don’t consider self-published books as an option.

    So for me, I guess it’s going to be the “ownership” method for now.

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