Photo By: Mika Baumeister from Unsplash

The introduction of streaming services like Spotify, Netflix, and even the oft-forgotten YouTube Music has given us more access to media than ever before. 

Now, instead of buying physical albums or paying for individual songs, we can pay a subscription fee and have access to just about every song ever recorded. It’s the same with movies and TV shows, instead of buying just one movie, paying the fee for a subscription service provides access to a wide array of media. 

It’s incredibly convenient, but it’s not a perfect system, not by a long shot. 

When you pay a subscription fee, it might feel like you have all the media available to you at your fingertips. Ultimately though, you’re at the mercy of whatever platform you’ve subscribed to. 

We see it happen all the time, shows get taken off of streaming services, albums get removed. Even though you paid your subscription fee, a show that you wanted to watch might no longer be available to you. 

When you pay for a streaming service, be it for music or video, you’re not paying for the content, you’re paying for the platform. So when you pay your Netflix subscription fee, you’re not paying for The Office, you’re paying to be able to use Netflix to watch it. If Netflix decides to take it down, or a studio decides to pull it, you’re pretty much out of luck. 

Generally, we all understand that this is how streaming services work. We know that if Spotify goes down, we won’t be able to listen to our carefully curated playlists. We’re all aware that Netflix might decide to take our favourite sitcoms off the platform halfway through our most recent rewatch and that we’re powerless to stop them.

The consequence of relying on subscription services is that we don’t really own our favourite movies and songs anymore. Obviously when I buy a DVD, I don’t “own” the right to reproduce or make copies of it, but I do own the right to pop it in a DVD player and watch it whenever I want. Paying for Netflix doesn’t mean the same thing. My favourite shows and movies could, theoretically, go away at any time, whether it’s because Netflix’s servers crashed or they were removed. 

The same is true with other forms of digital media. The eBooks that you buy through Kindle aren’t yours the same way a physical copy of the book (or other kinds of digitally downloadable books for that matter) are yours. Without the Kindle app, there’s no way to read the book you’ve paid for. 

There’s no place where the pitfalls of subscription-based models become more apparent than in the world of software. Take the example of Adobe, a few years ago they decided that rather than selling licenses for programs like Photoshop, the way they always had, they were going to pivot to Creative Cloud, a subscription-based service that forces users to pay monthly or annual subscription fees. Before Creative Cloud, you could buy Photoshop and use it for as long as you wanted, it wouldn’t update and if you wanted a more recent cutting edge version of the software, you would have to buy a new license, but it was still yours forever. That system is no more.

That’s the problem with subscription-based models, they’ve done away with the concept of “yours forever,” they’ve done away with ownership. Corporations found out that they would make more money if they charged rolling subscription fees rather than one-time purchase fees and we agreed to it because subscription fees are cheaper in the short-term. It’s a never ending cycle that ultimately gives control to platforms over consumers. 

Whether it’s TV, movies, software, music or even eBooks, subscription services have some serious pros and cons that are worth considering.