Acquiring new music can be a very addictive and expensive hobby. Downloading an album or the new single from that hot new band from iTunes a few times a month can add up quickly.
Which is why new subscription services are garnering so much buzz lately – for $5 to $10 a month these websites offer an easy, affordable (and somewhat legal) way to get all the music you want. However, many of the most talked-about subscription or streaming sites (like Spotify) aren't available in Canada yet.
In the first few clicks, Grooveshark, one of the few sites available here, seems too good to be true. You plug your desired song or artist into its search engine, and voila: it's all at your fingertips. For free! As users upload their entire music collections, you have the ability to stream this vast library of music at your leisure, whether you upload your own tracks or not. And you can even create playlists that you can e-mail or Facebook to your friends (a fantastic boon for the shameless mix-CD-gifting types).
There are some drawbacks, though. As you are streaming the tracks, you can't plop them onto your iPod. As for legality … well, the jury's still out on that one. Grooveshark has been plagued by lawsuits from publishers, artists, labels such as EMI and Universal Music Group. The argument is that people can upload tracks to the site that they haven't paid for (Grooveshark disputes this).
Eric Alper, director of media relations and label acquisitions for eOne Music and a music industry analyst, says a better option for Canadians might be Rdio, an ad-free music subscription service. For $4.99 a month if you just want it for your home computer, or $9.99 a month if you want it on your iPhone or Blackberry too, you can subscribe to the site and stream an unlimited number of tracks, or cache songs for offline playback. Like Grooveshark, Rdio has a vast music library, but it has amassed its collection by working with the major record labels (and some music aggregators).
The subscription model is probably the way we'll be paying for music in the future, Mr. Alper said.
"The success of Netflix in Canada has proven people will pay for music and entertainment – just give them access to what they want, when they want it, and how often they want to consume it," he said. "Right now, the customer has spoken, and they want access to music and not ownership."
Music analyst Alan Cross, known for his popular radio show The Ongoing History of New Music is also a fan of the social component of Rdio.
"I'm currently running an experiment called The Recommendation Project where Rdio subscribers can follow me and my playlists," Mr. Cross said. "They can also contribute to a series of collaborative playlists based on a specified theme set out by me. If they are a paying member of the services, they can access my playlist and my songs both on their desktop and mobile devices."
For an ardent music fan, these possibilities sound exciting. But will artists be paid properly when I listen to their music? (Stop rolling your eyes, illegal file-sharers.) Mr. Alper says yes, indeed, artists are paid according to the number of streams they receive; but it's a very small amount, a fraction of what they used to get from record sales. He uses numbers from Spotify to put it in perspective.
"It takes 48 streams at 1.46 cents per stream to equal the gross revenue that rights holders get from a 99-cent download on iTunes," he said. "A band's average Spotify payout from August, 2009, to March, 2011, was 0.2865 cents per stream. It would take 244 of them to equal the 70 cents the band would get from a 99-cent download." Ouch.
So, if artists are getting paid peanuts for their music, how the heck are they going to make money? Other ways, according to Mr. Cross.
"Get used to it. Music is now the calling card for the money-making ventures like gigs and licensing opportunities," he said.
But what of the various "clouds" that are on the horizon, from Google, Apple and Amazon? For instance, iCloud will enable users to share their music library with up to 10 other devices – something that would certainly allow for lots of playlist-sharing, not to mention the ability to explore other people's music libraries; pick the right people and you'd be swimming in free music.
Mr. Alper said he expects a long wait before the clouds come to Canada.
"Canadians are still waiting for Hulu, and remember how long it took the iPhone to arrive in this country?" he said. "My guess is somewhere around mid-2012. The Canadian market features at least three legal issues – licensing, levies and the lack of legal flexibility – each of which could create a significant entry barrier. There is nothing to stop the major record labels from licensing a similar service in Canada, yet experience to date suggests it won't happen quickly."
For the time being, I will likely continue to purchase some of my music through iTunes. But I'll be checking out music streaming options like Rdio. The technology is moving fast, and I don't want to be left behind.
Special to The Globe and Mail