This week Spotify tried to reposition itself in the market by moving from being an app to an app platform in itself. It’s a change that signals the company’s intention to stick extra pegs in the ground and secure itself as a destination for music lovers. It’s done a fairly good job of that for me so far, even though secretly I’m terrified of it.

Streaming history

I started using the desktop version of Spotify soon after it launched and fell in love with it. Within a few short weeks I had playlists full of artists I’d never heard of up until that point. My iPod had been starting to stagnate (for I am lazy) and my top 25 most played resembled the top 25 chart of 1995, so to be granted instant access to new music was a revelation.

My relationship with the streaming service got altogether more serious when I was gifted a free 7 day trial of Spotify Premium. It stripped out the ads, but it also gave me access to the then-fledgling mobile app. That was what me won over. The ability to add new music to a playlist instantly, sync it to offline play and listen to it on my iPhone while on the London Underground essentially killed my need to buy music.

I was happy to pay £9.99 a month thereafter for that service because I’d been spending about that on iTunes anyway. It became such an important part of my daily life that it was the sole reason I switched to Android; at the time the iPhone couldn’t multitask, which meant that if you left Spotify’s app (to play a game, for instance), the music died.

Long story short: I pay for Spotify Premium. I’m also now in bed with OnLive. I’ve got an Xbox 360 controller shoved into my under-powered computer that lets me play recent games at discount prices over super-mega WiFi, and I like it. I was tempted in by the offer to buy your first game for £1, and have bought one more since for £13. I can see myself signing up for the £6.99 monthly play pass soon.

5 ways OnLive can succeed

I can also feel, from deep in my weak quivering bones, that I’m going to be tempted by Netflix when it comes to the UK next year. It’s all been a shift that’s slowly seen me go from someone with a relatively normal collection of physical media, to a man comfortable to free some shelf space in favour of monthly subscriptions and all-you can eat choice.

The fear

Only it’s not comfortable. Not at all. I’m now in a position where, instead of preparing for nuclear winter by stocking my life with discs and MP3s that I physically have or are at least stored in some plastic hard drive somewhere, I’m asking to borrow the music, games and movies from someone else. And they’re really good at taking it back as soon as I’m done. Sure, I’m paying for it, but it’s their media and they have a right to not let me have it. Sounds paranoid? It’s not.

I enjoy using these services, but there’s an uneasy understanding between them and myself that they have the right to disappear at any given moment. OnLive, for instance, is backed by big partners such as BT and HTC, and it’s spent oodles on marketing, but I’ve still yet to run into anyone outside of the tech-o-sphere that’s ever heard of it. That’s pretty bloody worrying.

Say I end up paying for OnLive’s play pass for 5 years. I’d have handed over £419. If I’m doing that, I should make it my aim to play as many computer games as is humanly possible, but life gets in the way and I probably wouldn’t. £419 is roughly 11 games bought on the high street. More than two a year which, when we’re talking single-player epics, is about as much as I manage anyway.

And that’s not considering a big foible in the streaming business model: Bandwidth. These services want everyone in the world to use them, but they almost shouldn’t. The more people sucking content out of any given service, the more that service has to pay in terms of bandwidth.

Unless every single user is signed up to whatever the top-flight subscription has to be, I’d imagine that the costs involved in this will increase and you as the streamer will end up paying more.

This is also true on the other end: your ISP might offer you unlimited data for the month, but if everyone on your street has that and they’re all streaming games, films and music at all hours of the day, the cost for that ‘unlimited’ data will eventually creep up more than general inflation.

Netflix coming to the UK

So on that logic I’ve not made much of a saving, and may eventually lose out more in the long run. But then, the cost isn’t the thing that worries me most – it’s if OnLive, or Spotify, or Netflix will even exist in five years’ time at all. Putting all my faith in these companies is pretty risky in any financial climate, let alone this one.

If OnLive goes bust in five years time, I’ll have spent £419 to play games which I no longer own or have any access to. If Spotify shuts its doors I’ll have spent far more than that on music, only to have every last audio drop of it disappear.

I’ll have to go back to my iPod with its Blur albums. Blur are amazing, but it’ll take me a hell of a long time to build up a collection to rival what I’ve got going on in my current playlists. When you read news that says 200 record labels are pulling out of Spotify, or that the world’s biggest bands refuse outright to be on there altogether, you can’t help but think that none of these companies is truly safe.

Netflix has essentially said that it’s going to lose money in 2012. Great start. If I jump on the Netflix bandwagon I’ll be happy with my streamed movies while it lasts, but the second they crumble I’ll be left with a DVD collection that leaves much to be desired anyway. I know what you’re thinking: DVD’s and Blu-Rayss won’t be around for much longer.

There’s a simple solution to that: Tesco’s just launched a deal to hand out digital movies with DVDs. Why shops haven’t done this before is beyond me, but that’s a truly future-proof system that I’d be happy to get on board with. If it weren’t too late for me.

Future ideals

The problem is that I’m quite romantic about the notion that owning media is outdated. I like the idea that I’ll be able to say to my kids or grandkids “Yeah we actually had to go out and buy physical discs, and you had to have a big, whirry box under your TV that played them,” while they stare on disbelievingly.

I want it all to be that way because I’ve never really been the person who spends all his disposable income on new films or games. I’ve a far more casual interest so it’s easier to just sign up to something and take things as I like – to dip in and out, knowing that it’s all there if I want it. You may well be different in your habits, but either way, one truth is universal: no company is ever guaranteed to last forever.

It’s pessimistic in the extreme to let that get in the way of your enjoyment, but while I soak up all the juicy content currently offered to me in this streaming golden age, and as I hand over my monthly subscriptions without thinking, I can’t really shake an overwhelming feeling of danger. It’s the feeling that I might be going about things all wrong. I worry: am I putting absolute faith in a service that might not last?

Deep down, I know that that’s the case. Eventually Spotify will cease to be; doesnt matter if it’s in five years or 50. Then I’ll be screwed, and I doubt the mid-90s Britpop on my iPod will even load up. But then, I guess there’s always piracy.

  • David Nield

    had exactly the same experience switching from iTunes to Spotify.

    I don’t like not owning music, but after a few years of Spotify Premium, the idea of buying MP3s of an album I haven’t heard at least a dozen times seems absurd. Coldplay’s new album isn’t on Spotify – I’m not going to spend £8 to see if I like it. been there with X&Y.

    movies is a little bit different, as I rarely go back to ones I’ve watched. I’d be happy to pay for a streaming service there.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a great point about OnLive and Spotify. I’d argue it’s far less of a concern for the likes of Netflix – ever since their postal DVD days, their business model has always been about movie rental: you add stuff you like to a list, and get something from it sent to you at their discretion. I don’t think there’s ever been an expectation of anything else.

    Now Spotify on the other hand, able to summon any song you like over and over, could leave a lot more of a void were it to go under/heaven forbid get bought out.

  • Zedthegreat

    I  spend around £20 – £40 a month on music. If the £10 a month for Spotify was stopped then I would just spend it on another CD (I like physical media too). But for my £10 Spotify I can listen to hundreds of albums. So yes I know I am only renting the music, but it expands what I can hear a thousand fold. It has also ensured that the quality of music I buy on CD is better as I can listen first. 
    Also, if you have Sky / Virgin / get movie rentals from the video shop or iTunes etc you end up with nothing. These are long running services that no body questions. Should we be asking Sky to send me over a BluRay of Boardwalk Empire as I have only rented it from them?
    I understand your point, and it may be true if you give up ALL ownership, but in a hybrid model like mine I think it is brilliant. If you don’t like it then don’t sign up! Spend the money on something you can keep. It will be yours forever, but the range of product consumed will be less.
    And there is the compromise.

    • Adam Bunker

      I wish I could live my life like yours. I’m just too lazy to actively do both. Spotify appeals to this lazy side, which is why I end up overly reliant on services that could pull the rug from under me at any moment. 

      It’s a genuine worry.

  • Anonymous

    If Spotify hits the wall, you can guarantee someone will come up with a way to either export your playlists to a rival service or an easy way to pirate them all.

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