Blogs | March 11, 2019

Here today and gone tomorrow: renting media in a digital world

Online entertainment and streaming have made accessing content faster and more efficient, but is it for the better? Garrett Meccariello explores how ownership became renting!


The digital world has changed the way we interact with and think about buying entertainment media – shifting the relationship from ownership to renting, without much fanfare.

We have traded off the value of owning a physical product for access to almost unlimited content. Plans offered by companies such as Spotify, Netflix, and online shopping platforms like Steam empower users to explore new genres of music, movies, and video games, without having to purchase a physical CD or DVD.

Often for one fixed, monthly price, users can engage with endless content on their devices, but such a luxury comes at a cost – you don’t actually own any of the material, you just rent it.

From cassette to Spotify
When Apple launched iTunes in 2001, it transformed the way music fans behaved. For the first time, there was no need to go to a physical music shop to purchase songs on a CD or cassette. Instead, easy file downloads are readily available from the comfort of home.

Regardless of where you chose to buy your music, you held a copy in your hands at the end of the day in one form or another. Companies like Spotify have slowly put an end to that model, killing the record store and physical downloads once made popular by iTunes for many in the process.

Instead, they offer access through various “rental” or subscription options.

Illusion of ownership
When compared side by side with other ownership-based options, subscription-only offerings are problematic because you don’t actually own what you pay for, but month-to-month, the value of the access to the content we receive mostly outweighs the price paid for many.

Beneath the surface, forces deep within our brain cause us to turn a blind eye on what’s unfolding in front of us. Subscription-based content platforms lead subscribers to feel like they “own” the content by using terms such as “my songs” and “my favourites”.

In reality, that access to such pleasure is only granted to paying subscribers, a tactic used by many services to ensure people keep paying every month. Stop paying your dues for just one billing period and watch your perfectly curated playlists and favourited songs disappear from view – gone forever unless you decide to sign up again.

Not many customers have come to experience this loss of access and for a good reason. Humans, by nature, prefer to avoid losses, as we feel worse about them than gaining something of equal value.

Having been led to feel like we own a physical product having “held onto” it for so long, we form a type of false ownership that matches how we would think if we bought a copy of a CD in a record store. As long as the monthly bill is paid, people will never know how it feels to lose an item they don’t actually own.

The mental shortcuts
Subscription services like Spotify leverage this knowledge of how the brain uses mental shortcuts such as loss aversion (which is hardcoded in our brains’ way of working) to ensure that we never want to cancel or unsubscribe.

While we may not consciously realise what keeps us engaged with subscription providers, our mind runs a small calculation every time we pay the bill to see if the value exceeds the price that we pay.

Often, we choose to rationalise spending an unnecessary amount of money for continued “access” to various forms of entertainment rather than to watch it ripped out of our hands.

For better or worse
You may ask if this form of accessing entertainment is for the better and that answer depends mainly on your personal preferences. If you value the freedom to explore different tastes and preferences in music, movies, and video games, you are in luck.

But if you are someone who wants ownership and cherishes physical items, subscription services may not be best for you, or your wallet as they tend to be priced higher than alternative options.

Additional options to subscribing for content do still exist, but they have fallen in popularity as the coolness factor of streaming grows among younger generations. As the demand for accessing streaming content grows among your own friends and family, expect to feel like you must join in and take part not to feel left out on the next big thing.

If you own CDs or DVDs, hold onto them and remember the feeling of being in control of what you’ve purchased as that feeling will slowly disappear in the future- we’re renters now.

Loss aversionMediaSubscription

eZonomics team
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