Credit: Stable Diffusion

Living on the Subscription Clock

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 10:58 PM

Just writing this column is going to make me uncomfortable, because I certainly don’t like thinking about how many subscriptions I’ve gotten roped into. Not that long ago if you’d said “subscription,” I’d have thought “magazine.” Now, I think “everything.” Precisely how many subscriptions can we stomach?

Stop for a moment and count how many things you subscribe to. Feeling nice and calm? For most of us, the answer is probably “no.”

What on earth has happened?

The death of the original Netflix, which apparently was still going, really drove home the point for me. Before Netflix was known as the streaming video provider that tries to one up HBO with its trendy, edgy-to-risqué original productions, it was the beloved cyberspace replacement for Blockbuster Video.

The original Netflix was nearly the perfect subscription. You agreed to pay $7 a month to get a certain number of DVDs shipped back and forth per month, but it was convenient and without the late fees of ala carte video store rentals. With just a day or two of forethought on what you wanted to watch, essentially the world was your video oyster for that nice, preset fee.

For someone who often gets too busy to watch a movie when I thought I would, this was a good trade. The single DVD at a time plan gave me a chance to watch whatever TV show or movie I wanted at my rather slow pace.

The beginning of Netflix’s streaming endeavors seemed like the perfect extension: DVD-by-mail but faster. That’s not how it worked out. Somewhere in the mix of Netflix’s desire to control its own destiny by creating original content, Amazon’s entry into the streaming market with Prime Video and the big movie studios’ gleeful playing of the streamers against each other in the race for exclusive rights, the new Netflix ended up being HBO-but-streaming (before HBO fully embraced streaming) rather than Blockbuster-but-streaming.

The utopia of the original Netflix — watch anything this weekend as part of a prepaid plan, so long as you ask for it a few days ahead of time — was replaced with instant gratification if the show you watch is on the services you subscribe to. While I can now see anything via streaming, the cost and complexity far exceed that simple red DVD envelope in the mail club.

Netflix, Paramount+, HBO Max (soon to be just Max, thank you), Disney+, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Peacock — all these services, increasingly one per major media company, show how irresistible companies find the idea of having their own subscription revenue. Just to find a movie I want to see requires a streaming search tool, where before a simple search of the Netflix DVD catalog usually did the trick.

Perhaps some people subscribe to all of these services, but if you nab them all, the price nears $100 (or more) just for the privilege to access the sort of array of content Netflix alone once provided. Most of us have just had to give up being able to think, “Oh, I’d like to see Smokey and the Bandit,” and adjust to, “I wonder what I can see with what I currently have?” Overall, I liked the situation ten or fifteen years ago better.

Frankly, if I skipped the subscriptions entirely and spent as much on bargain DVDs per month, I would end up with more movies and TV shows than I will ever have time to watch.

The cord cutting revolution appears to be falling short on promise and heavy on ever increasing subscription fees. Subscription creep isn’t just with TV, either.

Remember the novelty and ease of buying music for $0.99/track a couple of decades ago? The iTunes Store was nearly perfect: no longer forced to buy whole CDs when a song or two would do, mixing our ideal playlists and — notably — having a lifetime right to play that music legally.

For now, the iTunes Store is still around, but if you want music in your smart device or want the easiest access in your car, we keep getting nudged towards $10/month subscriptions. Likewise, if you want the highest quality recordings — Dolby Atmos shows up on Apple Music, for example, but not iTunes Store.

That’s not even factoring in how different devices around the house might work better with one or another streaming service, unlike the days when they all played MP3’s happily. If I carry one or two of the music services per month, am I really getting more music than if I just bought the albums I’m currently listening to?

It's convenient, but also expensive and one’s music library becomes ephemeral. Steve Jobs famously argued against music subscription services on the basis that music is something people should own. While Apple Music is greatly profitable for his beloved company, I still suspect the iTunes Store model would leave us all better off. Except those purchased songs won’t play on smart speakers, except in the context of combining them with a subscription (and making the purchases essentially gratuitous).

There is a great deal of convenience in music services — subscriptions’ whole sales pitch always comes back to convenience — but the idea of not own music almost seems like not owning the tools to one’s trade.

Which is also the reality of our new subscription crazed world.

Subscription creep for me started with Adobe’s switch from the purchasable licenses for Creative Suite. Within creative fields — photography, web design, filmmaking and the like — Adobe software is nearly ubiquitous and proficiency with it is a baseline requirement. Paying hundreds of dollars to buy a copy of Adobe Photoshop was bad enough, but one could wait out upgrades rather than buying every single one, at least. Now, to play the “creative game,” one pretty much must cede over hundreds of dollars per year to Adobe.

Myself, I’ve managed to wean myself off of Photoshop and Illustrator, thanks to excellent programs like the Affinity Suite and Pixelmator Pro, but Adobe knows how to make it next to impossible to quit their drug. For me, the inescapable point is fonts. I do design work for here on OFB, along with several churches and non-profits. Each needs its own identity and fonts factor into that.

Adobe purchased the well thought out TypeKit service that made it easy to match a brand’s fonts on web sites. Now only available as part of Creative Cloud, and with virtually no real rivals, its hard to get away from the Adobe Tax. Individual fonts can run so high — especially for web publishing rights — Adobe can demand significant sums and still be inescapable.

Microsoft Office is now primarily available through subscription, my favorite calendar and scheduling software is available exclusively through subscription and the list goes on. One might look at the cost of computer hardware, but just think how much the software most of us use is on top of that.

Perhaps the scariest part is how this subscription trend is tainting even some of our biggest investments.

Over in Mudsock Heights, Dennis Powell recently referenced BMW’s toying with subscription heated seats in a recent column. It hasn’t hit the United States yet, so far as I can tell, and the German automaker’s similar attempt to make Apple CarPlay a subscription in their cars was unsuccessful, but the trendline is clear.

GM recently announced, speaking of CarPlay, that it plans to drop it and Android auto for a proprietary-only system it is creating with Google. Why? To do even more of the tracking Dennis mentioned in his piece and to get a bigger claim to those sweet, sweet reoccurring subscription revenues. The General doesn’t want people to be busy paying Apple or Google; they want people to subscribe to stuff from them instead.

(Apparently, buying a $50,000 car every so many years just isn’t enough for these poor, beleaguered car companies any longer.)

I went to buy a refrigerator this week and even that could involve subscriptions, as the store tried to talk me into buying their subscription plan for service, support and delivery.

I turned that one down and, try to turn down others as much as possible. I would like to think that if enough of us turned down enough subscription pitches, maybe the madness would end. But as long as all the rivals in pretty much every sector drool over the possibility of joining the subscription fray, the future looks… expensive.

I hope I don’t have to subscribe to my coffee maker any time soon, but color me unsurprised if that changes.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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