…And Here Come The Device-Restricted Music Subscriptions

from the oh-good dept

In the last episode of the Techdirt Podcast, we discussed the DRM implications of Apple’s decision to remove the analog headphone jack from the iPhone — specifically, the idea that in the future we may see music services that can only be played through specific output devices, such as a headphone-only subscription. We’re not quite there yet, but now Amazon is blazing the trail with the first major music subscription offering with a strict one-device limitation:

Would you pay a few extra bucks a month to turn your smart home speaker into an intelligent, unlimited jukebox? Amazon is betting people will.

The company on Wednesday is launching a new subscription music service, Amazon Music Unlimited, that starts at $3.99 a month for a library of tens of millions of songs. That?s less than half the cost of Apple Music, Spotify Premium and other competing music services.

Here?s the catch: At that lower price, you can only use the new service on a single Amazon Echo device: an Echo, Echo Dot or Amazon Tap

And so we enter a world with yet another means of fragmenting digital music services and making them way, way less appealing. At least they were decent enough to drop the price — but now that the floodgates are open, it’s entirely possible such heavily limited subscriptions will eventually become the new baseline, and truly open subscriptions that can be played anywhere (one of the biggest advantages of digital music) will morph into an expensive luxury. The key difference between this and our speculation about Apple limited output devices is that the restriction happens further upstream, with the subscription only being piped to one specific device — and if that device is an Echo Dot, there’s even still an analog jack so it can be plugged into just about anything else. But the next step — a subscription on a general purpose device like a phone with music that is artificially limited to only be output through certain devices, thanks to the DRM capabilities of digital-only connectors — feels slightly and worryingly closer to reality. And what will this accomplish? Nothing more than ensuring legal digital music continues to suck in unnecessary ways.

The grand, omnipresent and incorrect assumption about music piracy is that it’s primarily motivated by price, and the desire to get content without paying. It’s not and it never has been: it’s motivated by restrictions, and the desire to easily access a wide variety of content how, when and where you choose. It’s about music being free, but not free as in beer.

And so, naturally, the legacy music industry has sought out almost every opportunity to add restrictions and limitations to their digital offerings. Disruptive innovators like Spotify and Pandora fight an ongoing uphill battle to secure the necessary rights to offer something more open and appealing, and the massive digital retailers — Apple, Google and Amazon — drift around in between: aware and capable of the type of technological innovation necessary to make digital music services appealing, and armed with the money and clout to secure better licensing deals from rightsholders, but also prone (to varying degrees) to following in those rightsholders’ restrictive footsteps in order to fulfill their own dreams of total control and a captive audience. Amazon isn’t banking on people who are out searching for a digital music service deciding to go with the absurdly limited $4 option — it’s targeting existing Echo customers who might see it as a cheap add-on for some extra music around the house. It wants to upgrade those Echo users into Prime subscribers if they aren’t already (for even more music, since the services are weirdly fragmented from each other), and eventually turn new Echo-only music subscribers into fully dedicated Amazon Music customers. Instead of making it really, really easy to sign up for a music subscription that gives you everything you want on every device you own, it’s ensuring there are plenty of different ways for people to pay up for a tiny slice of that experience.

To some degree, this might work — it almost certainly won’t be the only such experiment, especially with Apple laying the groundwork for even more granular control. But in the long run it won’t fix anything, least of all piracy. It relies on people being trapped in a top-to-bottom walled garden, where they are happy getting all their devices and content from the same company on that company’s terms, which works to an extent when the gardens are pretty enough, but leaves all the real advantages of digital out in the cold, and the users end up suffering even if they don’t all know it. Even after all these years, the music industry has failed to truly offer the one thing that has obviously been the end-game and true promise of digital ever since the first MP3: a one-stop-shop for all the music in the world, delivered as digital data with all the freedom and flexibility that implies. Piracy has offered it since day one, and when it comes to competing with it, the only success stories are those services like Spotify that have fought hard to just offer a real taste of the same comprehensiveness and convenience. Amazon’s latest move is a step in the opposite direction.

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Comments on “…And Here Come The Device-Restricted Music Subscriptions”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Has anyone run a long term study of the effect of blow on the human brain?
One has to assume that the assload of blow record execs did in the past (off the asses of hookers) are leading them to be this paranoid and out of touch with reality.

They lie about how much money they are making, keeping their artists attacking the golden goose trying to cut the next egg out instead of wondering what the BMP charge in their contracts is for.

(Bolivian Marching Powder kids…)

rjh says:

Look at DI.FM for example

…speaking of device restrictions…

About a year ago, di.fm restricted streaming on Android to just their specific app; this meant that you could no longer just bookmark di.fm streams with other streams on other players. It is convenient to have all your favourite streams in one place.

Now, I can keep all my favourites streams bookmarked in one app (TuneIn Radio) but if I want to listen to di.fm I have to leave that, and start the di.fm app.

I don’t keep a cupboard of FM radios at home, one for each station or network. Why should this be different? Additionally, AFAIK no similar restriction exists if using desktop web browsers etc.

I haven’t bothered listening to them since they made that change; it demonstrates a small but incremental step toward breaking the very nature of internet connectivity that made all of these services possible in the first place. If di.fm had tried to launch using a dedicated app, they’d never have got off the ground.

Anonymous Coward says:

Whom are they trying to scam? Every song released before nineteen hundred and seventy should now be in the public domain. Thanks to the likes of Sonny and Cher and the governments war on the people, the government granted monopoly laws were changed. Do to these facts they will no longer recieve any pleasure from me, they will have to pleasure themselves.

David says:

Nothing new here.

J.S.Bach wrote some organ music that could not be played on large organs other than those built by Silbermann. Some believe his “Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV565”, sometimes doubted to be from Bach at all due to its simplicity and dearth of manuscripts, to have been a test piece where fully registered deep polyphonic passages alternate with filigrane ornaments in the treble, causing the inertia of the moving weighted central bellows to viciously overblow the small pipes with the ongoing wind feeding the big pipes (assuming that it did not run out of air doing so).

His talent for finding and exploiting the resonances in the air supply were legendary and caused Silbermann to consider Bach “that pest from Leipzig” in letters. Silbermann ultimately designed a system of small buffering bellows with less inertia to deal with those exploits, and Bach explored the possibilities of still getting those systems to break down by finding its resonances. It was sort of an arms’ race, with Silbermann hating Bach with a vengence for making his organs look deficient (though less so than others) and Bach holding Silbermann in highest esteem (which was actually good for Silbermann’s business).

The end result is that the earliest organs considered still playable seriously by today’s standards are indeed Silbermann’s.

I suspect that the ending to Amazon’s story will play out differently, though.

charliebrown (profile) says:

My Collection

If anybody is interested, my music library includes at least 10 albums that you can’t buy on iTunes plus at least a dozen songs. And that is only “so far” as I’ve only ripped about 10% of my music collection.

And I can play it anywhere. I have my music on CD. And cassette. And some on my phone. I’m contemplating mini-discs. No need for 8-track, although it would be funny just to see people’s face when I switch programmes and Radiohead start playing. Or Taylor Swift. I can’t decide which would be more amusing. Maybe some Kanye West (yuck!)

As for physical media, I use a CD player, a cassette deck – yes, I said a cassette deck! – a record player – sorry, a turntable – and a hard disk drive in my computer. I buy what I like. If I don’t know a song, YouTube usually fixes that. And if I like it, I buy it. Some things new, some things second hand.

The best part is, though: It is all mine and I choose what to do with it.

David says:

Re: My Collection

I’m contemplating mini-discs.
As for physical media, I use a CD player,
The best part is, though: It is all mine and I choose what to do with it.

Uh, then minidiscs are out. They were killed by the “Copy Bit” DRM stupidity of Sony. If you record from your CD player to minidisc, you won’t be able to do another iteration of arrangement starting from minidisc.

No “I choose what to do with it” here.

charliebrown (profile) says:

Re: Re: My Collection

Good point. I’d forgotten about SCMS, although I bought a CD recorder recently to make it easier to transfer any cassettes and records I want computerised. I’m used to recording to CD-RW then ripping it to edit in the computer, so no SCMS.

I’m always happy to record via analogue if I can’t record in digital. It might “degrade” the sound quality but its by one generation (digital source to analogue signal to digital recording) so the quality loss for me is negligible.

But, yes, you’re right. SCMS is the main reason most digital recording technologies of the 1990’s never really took off before the PC based CD-R’s, IMO.

JBDragon (profile) says:

Re: My Collection

There’s nothing wrong with buying music and having it on whatever you want. I have a lot of music on CD’s myself I paid for over the years. I was buying CD’s long before there was MP3’s.

Still it’s music you own. You know what you own. Then you get tired of it. It doesn’t change and get updated. Same old same old, so you’re off figuring out what you should buy next.

I just got tired of that. Really for the price of 1 CD a month or less, you gain access to a huge amount of music.

These days for myself, I just had enough. Now I tune into audio blogs which is free, and if not that, then I play some Amazon Prime Music which is free with Prime Service, so I might as well take advantage of that. The music selection is a lot smaller, but more then good enough for my needs.

For those times when I can’t stream music, like up in the mountains, I have a lot of the music I own on a SD card in my trucks radio and I can switch over and start playing that.

I havn’t used a Cassette Deck or tape in YEARS. I jumped on CD’s pretty early on. I didn’t get much into records. I’d play some of my Dad’s 8-tracks. I used a cassette Tape on my Commodore Vic-20 to Record and play back programs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Gamblin' Man

“Amazon is betting people will.”
Point me at their bookie – I’ll take that bet.

My first question when considering the acquisition of any new media, music or otherwise, is about DRM. If I can’t buy it in a form that allows me defeat the DRM as the content is being sold by the rights-holders, I “pirate” the content from a source without DRM. Paid for or not, I will own – not rent – not purchase multiple times – not subscribe subject to the risk of revocation at the whim of some other party – acquire once and then OWN my music and deploy it as I please to all the platforms I enjoy (between me and my bride, that’s nine devices).

As has been previously observed, the very notion of selling content with a single target client device(?!) reveals a mind-numbingly jaw-dropping level of ignorance about the 21st century consumption of media.

Anonymous Coward says:

history lessons, history lessons, and more history lessons

Leigh Beadon, before writing any more articles on this subject, you might want to talk to your boss Mike Masnick about PressPlay, MusicNet, and Rhapsody, the extinct turn-of-the-century DRM-infected music subscription services that headlined tech news all those years ago.

Amazon’s Music Unlimited is nothing new or revolutionary. It’s basically just a step back in time, a return to a failed business model that we all thought (or at least hoped) had been abandoned long ago (just as Techdirt had frequently predicted when this site was just a tiny part-time blog).

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: history lessons, history lessons, and more history lessons

I’m well aware of such services (ironically for your comment, by the way, I’m the one who writes our weekly history-of-techdirt posts). But I cannot turn every post into a complete history lesson on 20 years of digital music, and there are some key distinctions that make me quite comfortable in calling this a “first” even if first needs an asterisk (which that word almost always does).

Those were all download services, offering DRM-encumbered audio files. Much of the digital music industry has since transitioned to a streaming-subscription model, and that world has been almost exclusively dominated by “subscribe once listen anywhere” offerings, with the idea being that you are paying for the data stream and a selling point being that you can then access that data stream from any device. In the post-Spotify world, and in the realm of digital streaming subscriptions, a one-device-only offering is as far as I know a first.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: history lessons, history lessons, and more history lessons

We need to be aware that it was a fine line that separated the early “music downloads” from “music streams” as those DRM monstrosities were originally packaged and sold by a notably unenthusiastic recording industry. What they once called “downloads” resembled in bitrate, function, portability, and to a degree permanence, more closely what we tend to think of today as “streams.”

But officially at least, Rhapsody was a streaming-only service while PressPlay and MusicNet did both. With their wide array of annoying restrictions, including limits of all kinds, it’s not surprising that none of them became popular. It might seem odd now that they would limit the service to no more than two computers (Windows only of course), even on a home network with the same external IP address, but that seemed to be the general standard back then for anything with DRM.

Anyway, we should all be thankful to Mike Masnick and others who helped to pull back the curtain and shine some light on these vampires until they withered away.


JokerThe says:

I’m just not interested in Amazon’s device limitations. Most of my music was copied from my personal CD collection before I sold/donated/gave away most of my 1000 CD collection. If there’s a song or album that I really want, I’ll buy it from iTunes. I want to hear my favorite music on all of my personal devices. All these DRM and device limiting schemes do is turn paying consumers into pirate downloaders.

t3rminus (profile) says:

DRM implications of Apple’s decision to remove the analog headphone jack from the iPhone — specifically, the idea that in the future we may see music services that can only be played through specific output devices

Why do people keep spouting this nonsense? If Apple (or any 3rd party) intended to DRM music playback, they wouldn’t have included an analog dongle in the box.

Software-wise, nothing has changed from the previous iPhone. All that’s happened is that a tiny piece of hardware has moved into an adapter.
There’s no new opportunity to lock things down that wasn’t there before. There was nothing stopping developers from preventing analog headphone use previously anyway.

Yes, it’s fun and easy to get clicks by demonizing Apple and their dumb decisions. It was stupid of them. We all get it. Everyone (except Apple) seems to know it, but this is not new DRM, nor could it allow new DRM that previously wasn’t possible.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: A non-story, really

“This is a non-story”

Since you have built your persona on ignoring the actual points being raised in every article, sure.

“they are attempting to create both differentiation and niche in an evolving marketplace”

…by introducing fragmentation and restriction in a way negative for consumers of the entire industry. You really do have a weird way of pretending to argue but agreeing with everything being said.

“It’s also not clear that the service overall is limited, just that very low price promotional tier.”

So, you admit that part of it is restricted? Whether or not there’s another unrestricted element does nothing to undermine the point of the article.

Anonymous Coward says:

DRM isn’t really about revenue, sales or even stopping piracy, these are just tangential issues.
The purpose of DRM is control, hopefully (for them at least) the level of control they had before audio cassettes.

They really just want to be able to sell and resell the exact same content over and over, the “poor” souls. Mix it and remix it; in deals, promotions, cross-promotions, etc. in every possible way imaginable.

Also with device specific DRM you can get leverage over non-compliant or “disruptive” device manufacturers by threatening to remove them from the supported pool of devices.

Myxer free ringtones (user link) says:

Wonderful insight on device restricted music.

Device restricted music is really a bad idea. What if a subscribed fellow want to access hit account from another device? I think apps like Myxer app are far bettet in this aspect as they provide free rintones irresptice of device. There is no device restriction. Anyway, thanks for the wonderful post.

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