Downloads and consumer choice

A few months back, reports surfaced that Apple—the pioneer of digital music sales—would discontinue downloads in favor of an exclusive subscription streaming model within the next two years. Although Apple has sold tens of billions of tracks since launching the iTunes store more than a decade ago, digital downloads have slumped as streaming services have seen massive growth. So Apple's aggressive moves into the streaming market took no one by surprise. The news of the end of downloads, however, raised eyebrows in some corners. But Apple was quick to deny reports that it planned to kill off downloads.

Recent developments cast some doubts on those disavowals. When Apple Music launched in China, it offered monthly subscription plans, but didn't include the ability to buy individual downloads from the iTunes store, although movie and book downloads were available. Similarly, á la carte downloads were conspicuously absent from this week's Apple Music debut in South Korea.

One of the recurring themes in our book is the importance of consumer choice. Streaming  models are not inherently bad. Far from it. In fact, they are often preferable from the perspective of individual consumers. But not everyone wants to stream. Some consumers prefer to own their stuff, both physical and digital. And the option to buy, to possess, to control a local copy does valuable work in the market. Most importantly, it limits the power of service providers to control price and availability. 

We've consistently expressed concern about a future that focuses on inherently contingent forms of access like subscription streaming services to the exclusion of more permanent and durable means of acquisition. When we described this possible future, we were worried that these concerns would be labeled "alarmist." But more and more, they look like the world in which we all live.