Searching for music in a world of monthly subscriptions

I have an older iPhone 6s. Its battery is still fine. It still works just fine. Its screen is pristine and not cracked. So I have not wanted to pay hundreds of dollars for the latest model. But I decided to try Apple Music the other week, thinking, $10 a month gets you all these songs. I didn’t realize that iTunes is getting discontinued, except it still works, sluggishly, on older models. I didn’t make it through the whole three months of the free trial because I realized I was just renting music. I didn’t want that. I was paying all this money for music that wasn’t mine. So I canceled the subscription.

Well, my iTunes soon became unusable, because every time I opened it, an error message flashed on, literally every five seconds that I was using the app, telling me this account was not connected to Apple Music. That is no accident. No anti-Apple people are allowed to chime in here; I love Apple and find their products durable, virus-free, easy to use and just what I need. I don’t want to MacGyver my home screen to look like a video game, I just want to talk on the phone. But it’s also a corporation that wants your money.

In despair, I deleted the app and re-installed it, even though Apple notified me that all my songs would be lost. The error message disappeared, but so did all the music I bought years ago. Maybe $75 worth of tunes. Now, I didn’t actually want 3/4 of them any more, but there were a few I am crushed over. It’s my fault for not backing them up, but I gave in to a splurge of panic. The fact is, we live increasingly in a world where we don’t own anything, where our lives are indebted to corporations through endless subscription models, and people don’t seem to care any more, they just seem to acquiesce with the flow.

Only the very rich have assets, and the rest of us pay $10 to Apple Music, $10 to Kindle Unlimited, $10 to Netflix, $10 to Hulu, $10 to Disney Plus, $10 to Audible, $10 to Amazon Prime, $10 to iCloud data storage, $10 to Adobe Photoshop, $10 for Youtube, $10 for random apps, and you get the picture. Soon we’re losing $100 per month of our paychecks to subscriptions. But we never own any of the content we use on them. In the end, you pay more in the long run in that monthly subscription fee than you would if you just owned the product, and that’s why corporations do it. There is profit in it, and there is demand for it.

This is why I was always hesitant to upgrade my paperback novels to ebooks and my CDs and records to MP3s. Electronic versions of content are not tangible. They don’t even feel real. You can touch the device, you can swipe between the “pages,” but you can’t touch the paper spine of a book or the cool, flimsy polycarbonate plastic of a CD. With a keystroke or a swipe, or data failure or a crash, something that you bought with your hard-earned money can instantly disappear, and you can never get it back. It was as if it was never truly yours, in the end. It was a data mirage. An illusion of art.

I wonder if other people my age and younger are just okay with this. They have accepted this as the way things have to be. They don’t want to acquire more material things, and they don’t want to pay for the entertainment they enjoy, either. But corporations have discovered that young people are willing to rent content and entertainment. They are willing to rent it in droves.

In truth, I used to be like that. I didn’t want rooms full of books that I would eventually have to pack into boxes and lug to my next apartment. After you move a few boxes of books, you don’t want to have to do it again, no matter how much you love the books. I end up moving every 3-5 years, even though I have stayed in the same state for a couple of decades.

We live in an increasingly mobile society where cross-country moves are not uncommon, even for young families. People think nothing of uprooting themselves and their children for capitalism any more. They call it their career, but it’s really capitalism. In the old days, we stayed in the same small town, the same house all our lives, the house we inherited from our grandmother. We had the ability and the income to accumulate stuff. Now even income is disappearing. We’re increasingly stratified into single income earners and gig economy workers. Nothing is real. Nothing is tangible. The only thing we can touch is a disposable paper cup containing a piping hot $5 mocha piled high with whipped cream from Starbucks. They spelled our name wrong on the cup in permanent black ink. We can taste the chocolate on our tongue. That’s real. Real, no longer, is the way a singer’s voice sounds on an LP, with the scratchy fuzz of by-now ancient technology. Her voice has been digitized. Smoothed out. An illusion. An Auto-tune of reality.

Now yes, you’ll tell me, there is a resurgence in popularity of vintage things among hipsters. They like records and CDs. They are enamored with analogue. CDs were perhaps always crap; records are better. But they do it for the fashion of it. To be cool. How often do they really listen to their records?

I have perhaps always undergone this struggle when technology changes. I wait until the last minute. I am not an early adopter. I use my stuff until it is scratched up and useless before I get a new one. Perhaps it comes from my upbringing. My dad’s dad passed away when he was 15 and his dad was raised with a Depression-era mentality, so he passed that down to him, and my dad passed that down to me. My dad collects stuff; he restores old motorcycles, and he has a shop full of them, and he plays the bass. But growing up he always preached the philosophy that if you can still use something, you can’t afford to replace it. Even if we could afford it. It was wasteful.

So when cassette tapes changed to CDs, I kept my cassette tapes. I wore out the black ribbon until I couldn’t play them any more. Cassette players were still installed in cars, and I still had one. But eventually, I realized that CDs were better, even though they could scratch and they seemed less durable. I gave my cassette tapes to Goodwill because no one wanted them then. I got CDs. I got packs full of CDs. Eventually I stopped using the CDs. They collected dust on their scratches. I sold my stereo. I used Napster in college, because I guess pirating art is cool when you’re young. You don’t want to pay for anything when you’re young. Then I graduated to iTunes, and I started using Spotify.

The same, perhaps, is true of all technology. I remember the days when I would visit video rental stores on a Friday night and spend hours scouring shelves of DVDs for a movie to watch that night. Now I can get Amazon Prime. That’s the only streaming service I have submitted myself to. But there’s nothing on; I have to search through lots of titles I’m not interested in for hours, and I don’t even own them. I can’t touch them and return them after three days. And I find I don’t watch movies any more.

There is a meme going around that is quite popular that gets recycled every month. It says something like “You think the arts are useless? Try surviving quarantine without books, movies, games and music.” I don’t think anyone thinks they’re useless. But no one values them. They don’t want to pay for them.

But they are happy to be indebted to rent them in perpetuity.


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