Sonos leaps into leased music market

It wasn’t long ago that the CD player was the number one source of music in a multi-room audio system 11/05/2007 3:00 AM Eastern

Sonos leaps into leased music market

Nov 5, 2007 8:00 AM

It wasn’t long ago that the CD player was the number one source of music in a multi-room audio system. That was last millennium. The question for custom installers in the 21st century is, will physical media play any role in the housewide music system?

Sonos’ addition last week of the Napster music service to its list of online content partners—and TiVo’s recent partnership with Rhapsody—point to a future of virtual, leased music collections that live beyond the PC realm.

That’s a step past today’s established iTunes model of downloading music to own for playback via the iPod, Apple TV, or on any of the countless iPod digital media adapters that have come out over the past couple of years. Whether it’s music from iTunes, Best Buy, Amazon or Urge, will consumers feel they have to own music at all when they can just rent it?

After all, it’s much easier to bypass the download step altogether and just pluck tunes from a multi-million-track online subscription library, especially with smart search technology like that included in the most recent version of Sonos software. Could a music sub become as common to consumers’ monthly bill pay process as cable TV or Internet access? WiFi-based portable music players easily extend the subscription outside the home.

Consumers are still ripping and storing music to the PC from their CD libraries today, but based on the downward spiral of CD sales, that model doesn’t have a rosy future--especially among early adopters. Going forward, it’s hard to imagine a market for $14.98 CDs—and the Escient and ReQuest servers and Sony 200-disc changers that play them—when users can call up all the music they can consume for $10-$15 a month. How the 99 cent download or $10 iTunes album price fits in remains to be seen. When enough consumers lose their rights to purchased tunes through a computer upgrade, DRM lockout or hard disk crash, the music-for-rent option may gain traction.

The Net-based music library has appeal. The online model gives users access to tunes without extra hardware—and without having to boot up the PC and invest in a cumbersome media server/extender combination.

Looking back, first-year Sonos systems now seem archaic. Built around the PC music library, the computer had to be on for the system to work. Since then Sonos has partnered with subscription-based services Rhapsody, Napster, Sirius Internet Radio and Pandora that bypass the PC altogether via the home network router.

With four online music services to choose from, Sonos owners have access to customized playlists, personalized genres and millions of tunes for less each month than the cost of one CD. If they have Rhapsody on their TiVo DVR, their portable Sansa or P2, and maybe a cell phone in the future, they can spread the cost of the subscription across multiple platforms.

The leased music market just might have some legs.

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