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April 26, 2004

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I'd Like Some Personal Audio Entertainment Services, Please

So, this is pretty interesting: Clive Thompson has a new column up about the online music service called Rhapsody.

For iTunes, as you may know, you pay $0.99 and get a music file that you can play or burn onto a CD. Rhapsody’s different: According to Clive, $10 a month gets you access to the service’s entire library of music — but you don’t get any of the files. You just get the music, streamed to your speakers.

This reminds me of the excellent book “Natural Capitalism” which argued that we ought to get more goods as services instead of products. Example: Light bulbs. Does anybody want a light bulb? Does the product itself deliver any satisfation? No — clearly, it’s household illumination services that we’re after. But to get them we must purchase fungly light bulbs.

So wouldn’t it be interesting, the book suggests, if instead of peddling bulbs, General Electric sold lighting services for some small annual fee. It’d cost the same as a year’s supply of bulbs, and we’d get the same ultimate product: Light. But now, absent the need to maximize bulb sales, it’d be in G.E.’s interest to aggressively innovate super-efficient light technology — ‘cause then it would cost them less to provide the service, and they could take the difference as profit. (Thus, “Natural Capitalism,” in which good business is aligned with good environmental values.)

Interface, a commercial carpet company, is in fact moving towards selling interior comfort services, not carpet. They have lots of info at their sustainability site. And apparently it hasn’t totally ruined the company or anything.

It’s interesting to extend this model to music. What is it we really want? Well, if it’s merely personal audio entertainment services, then Rhapsody is a great idea. Rhapsody is in the business of providing music, not selling tracks, so it can behave differently, right? It can spend its research dollars on faster, smoother, cooler music-playing technology instead of elaborate copy-protection schemes. Excellent.

But, not every commercial activity fits the “Natural Capitalism” service model. Think of automobiles: Yeah, we want transportation services; but many of us also want a car. The product-ness of it — having it in the driveway, having your junk in the back seat — is important.

So is music more like carpet or more like a car? For me, it’s probably carpet. I think I could groove on Rhapsody, as I a) am musically clueless, and b) score no points with anyone for having cool music.

In general, though, I suspect it’s more like a car: People want sounds to listen to, yeah, but they also want to own music — music as cultural signifier, music as collection. Music in the driveway. (Although, as Clive points out, with iTunes and its ilk you “own” your music in a somewhat more limited sense than you did with CDs and tapes.)

Anyway, how about you? Car or carpet?

Also, check this out: MusicMatch, a service that was playing in the comic shop during the 24-hour comics marathon this weekend. It’s got this feature:

With Artist MATCH, you can automatically create and save your own stations. You simply select your favorite artists and Artist MATCH will choose related artists to complete your station. It’s the easiest way to listen to music you love and discover new music at the same time.


Posted April 26, 2004 at 1:48 | Comments (11) | Permasnark
File under: Technosnark


That Natural Capitalism stuff is really interesting -- I remember a friend reading the book and loving it a while back, but I never got around to reading it myself!

As far as cars go, that's situation specific. In most cities in America, a car is essential to getting around, so people absolutely need one. In the biggest metropolises, though -- such as New York, where I live -- it's usually much more efficient to use the "transportation services": Subway, buses, trains, taxis, or walking. Because traffic is so nasty, parking is so expensive, and things are relatively close together (i.e. you're mostly travelling only a few miles in any given day), cars are actually much more hassle than they're worth, and a service model makes more sense.

But this is precisely why it'd be virtually impossible to use the transportation service model anywhere else in the country: Very few cities have that same sweet-spot confluence of vectors that makes public transportation such a hit in New York.

"But, not every commercial activity fits the “Natural Capitalism” service model."

Whoa whoa whoa... so you mean to tell me that there can be an economic model which doesn't apply to every situation? ;)

I think you just blew the minds of all the free-market libertarians out there.

1. Clive, I think transportation-as-service is possible elsewhere, at least in straight-up economic terms. Consider car-sharing schemes in Europe -- I don't know exactly how they work, but my impression is that people pay some fee to get access to a shared pool of cars distributed throughout the city/country. Economically, this makes a lot of sense -- cars are famously under-utilized (parked most of the day, driven by only one person) so sharing them & using them more intensely is definitely a step in the right direction.

But even if such a scheme existed in, say, St. Petersburg, I think people would still want their own car. I maintain it's not a matter of pure utility, but one of (possibly irrational) preference as well.

Hmm, I think I've come up with a question that determines if the service model will apply to any given product: Do people give it a name?

If yes (e.g. cars are routinely named 'Debbie' or 'Stallion 4000') then it won't fly.

If no (e.g. no one has ever, ever given a light bulb a name) then it might.

You're right, though, that when you change the economics of the situation -- costs and benefits -- people can get over their irrational preferences pretty quickly (or avoid forming them in the first place).

2. Jeff, your healthy snark level is noted.

Posted by: Robin on April 26, 2004 at 03:35 PM

You could probably get the people who look at cars as method of getting from A to B to do the car-sharing. My dad might be a good candidate. But you'd never convince the people who buy non-commuter cars - SUVs, trucks, sports cars, etc. -just to have a cool car. Especially the people with blinged out cars.

As for music, I don't like streaming, because it means you need to have access to the internet to listen to music. Unless Rhapsody can figure out a way to get my stereo to play off my broadband connection, and a way to get the music streaming into my car, I'll stick with CDs.

(I named my light bulb Sparky. He doesn't appreciate your comments.)

Kevin, good point about Internet access. Clive mentions the same thing in his Slate article. What about the day when wireless broadband access is ubiquitous? Would you go for a streaming subscription then?

Posted by: Robin on April 28, 2004 at 09:56 AM

If I could get broadband access everywhere, then i might consider it...
I do kinda like the whole "owning it" thing - owning the physical CD, not just the music. I've purchased 1 track on iTunes, and it sounds fine, nice quality, etc, but i don't like not being able to take it with me, plus the fact that only 3 computers can ever play the track.

However, if it was pretty cheap ($10 a month or so) and i could easily (easy is key) access music (maybe have a omnipresent Favorites/My Music/whatever, essentially a list [library] of the music you like [would own on CD]) then I'd probably be down for the service.

I think my biggest problem is that I doubt the ability of the developer to create what I want in terms of features and UI. But who knows, maybe they'll come up with a perfect system.

day late--- buck short--but i'll still blabber.

first of all.. hey you can turn that itunes song out to freedom. you just have to burn it to a CD and then put it back on your computer. it takes all the ownership off. seems less wasteful if you have more than one song. but, whatever. just annoying information i spew.

hmm.. i sold all my cds after i encoded them thru itunes and now they are on my ipod. i play 'em in my car. rhapsody is tempting because you can listen to anything. which would be cool if you only listen to music within reach of your computer and network access.

i have hardwood floors. i would like to have a remnant and those-little-carpet-squares-you-napped-on-when-you-were-six subscription service.

i'm a lazy pseudo-snarkette.

I like Robin's naming principle; it suggests the near-primal impulse to fetishize at the heart of the acquisitive drive. Not all fetishes are sexual; the fetish, broadly conceived, suggests the way in which we assign secret powers or lives to things.

But an even better criterion may be relative or absolute permanence vs. impermanence/ephemerality. There are some things that we own that we expect to be permanent, or nearly so, and other things that we own that automatically have a limited shelf life: light bulbs being the best example. Nobody names a light bulb because, even if you legally own it, you don't own it in the sense of having a long-term personal investment: you use it, it breaks, and you throw it away. Speaking of which, I'd love to have services for trash bags, toilet paper, paper towels, printer ink, soap, shampoo, shaving cream, razor blades, deodorant, laundry and dishwasher detergent (or perhaps laundry and dishwashing services?), contact lenses, and (at least sometimes) food. (Not that life in the dorms was all that wonderful.) It'd be great if you could have all of those pumped into your house like gas, water, or electricity.

Some things, though, are pseudo-permanent: shoes, clothes, cars, furniture, pets. Here, though, the limited life span of the product might contribute to the attachment we feel for them; we care for our cars much in the same way we care for our pets, and both last about the same length of time (10-plus years, depending on how old they are when you get them -- this may also explain why so many New Yorkers are so crazy about their dogs). These things are also usually physically more proximate to us than other things we own, which makes them more familiar, but oddly, more personal (both in the sense of their relationship to our person and in the sense of them having personae). When objects are pseudo-permanent, you live with their birth, lives, and deaths: the small tragedies of objects.

To a certain extent, then, the question is to what degree people will be willing to accept an impermanent relationship to certain kinds of things. I doubt that there is anything intrinsic to most objects that would preclude us from using them temporarily: our impulse to name or to fetishize comes from our sense of long attachment, rather than the other way around. Of course, there are cultural differences to be overcome. Some people couldn't see themselves without owning a car, but could easily not own books (instead reading periodicals, at the library, or not at all); for me, despite my Detroitness, it's now the other way around. A better question to ask is whether we could live without any sense of permanent ownership: life in the eternal hotel.

Posted by: Tim on May 19, 2004 at 03:56 PM

It took me a couple of tries to read your comment, Tim ("large... paragraphs... eyes... wandering... aghhhh"), but I finally got it.

Life in the eternal hotel. Great phrase.

Any important difference between official and practical ownership? Not that many people have full ownership of their house, but most feel like it's fully 'theirs,' right? (Maybe more homeowners are urgently aware of the bank's claim on their digs than I realize.)

What about cable boxes? People have them in their houses for years, yet they never own 'em. Do they regard them as strangers, long-term electronic guests? Or do they forget -- or not care -- that Comcast owns the box after it's been sitting next to the DVD player for a year?

(Okay, erm, admittedly, the cable box is not exactly the most scintillating object in the house. The answer to my question is probably: "Uh, people don't think about their cable boxes AT ALL.")

Posted by: Robin on May 20, 2004 at 10:49 AM

Re: my paragraphs -- You gotta remember, Rob, I don't live in the blogosphere: when I kick into full-on academic mode, my paragraphs can fill a page. Think of it as high-fiber reading; better for you than straight sugar, but there's a time and a place for both. I'll try to tailor my game.

For lack of better language, I guess I'd reframe your legal vs. practical ownership distinction in terms of official property vs. psychological investment: you feel like you own something even if you legally don't (or vice versa).

The cable box is a nice example for a couple of reasons. Psychological investment in an object is a function of many variables; the two most important are probably relative permanence and physical proximity. In other words, we feel like we own things when we live with them: use them, play with them, collect them, care about them.

To do this, things have to be a little conspicuous. Like a lot of things, the cable box is only conspicuous when it doesn't work. Otherwise, who cares? Why own it, legally or otherwise? The cable box adequately performs its task at delivering television services, and ideally, never has to be maintained or replaced.

In other words, it's the perfect lightbulb.

Posted by: Tim on May 24, 2004 at 10:39 PM
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