My Slate column on why streaming rocks

Last week Slate published my latest column — which is an ode to streaming, that mostly-neglected way of getting digital music. I tried out the streaming service Rhapsody, and discovered that quite to my surprise, it rocked madly. With 500,000 songs instantly at my beck and call, for $10 a month, it suddenly became really easy to explore new artists — something that is incredibly expensive if you do it by buying CDs, and incredibly slow if you do it by using Kazaa. Most interestingly, I discovered that I didn’t really care that much about not “owning” the songs; I was willing to trade enormous access to a massive library in exchange for not actually having them, physically, on my hard drive. That’s partly because, as I noted, ownership these days isn’t actually ownership:

But as music fans are finding out, when you buy a song online, it usually isn’t property any more. It’s a license, an agreement to let you use the song. And those licenses impose some maddeningly Byzantine limits on how you use your music. Most legal downloads will work only on approved devices. A song bought at iTunes in “AAC,” or Advanced Audio Coding, format won’t work on anything but an iPod, while songs bought at MusicMatch or Napster in Microsoft’s “WMA,” Windows Media Audio, format won’t work on iPods or many older MP3 players. And what if you get bored of that Strokes album you downloaded? Too bad: You can’t sell it to anyone. That, too, would violate most of the licensing agreements. Worst of all, licenses on downloaded music can be rescinded. If the music companies want, they can “turn off” your right to listen to the music you’ve bought.

By using licenses, the labels and their download sites are secretly transforming music into a service—something to which you subscribe, and about which they can change the rules any time they want. But it’s a particularly crappy service. Who wants to “own” this sort of pseudo-property, these annoying, stubborn, mulelike music files? In contrast, a music-streaming site advertises itself as a service, with an entirely different sort of consumer logic and much more satisfying results.

You can read the entire piece online if you want here! And if you post any comments in the message boards here, copy ‘em to the Slate Fray, where intelligent comment is always welcomed.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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