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Buying vs. streaming music: which is cheaper?

Advances in consumer electronics have totally changed the way most of us consume music. Ancient pre-Millennials will remember a time when, if you wanted to listen to a song, you had to either hope it came on the radio or actually purchase a physical album.

These days, if you want to listen to a specific song or make a custom playlist, you basically have two (legal) choices: you can buy and download a music file, or you can subscribe to a streaming music service and effectively rent it.

Which is cheaper?

Which option has the price advantage depends on how much music you consume. For $10 to $15 a month, you can get a subscription to Spotify, Rhapsody, Mog or any number of other streaming services that will give you access to the catalogues of most major labels and many independent record companies and artists, minus some crotchety old artists like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and Thom Yorke [3] who flat-out won’t allow their music to be streamed.

That’s not a ton of money, but it does add up to $120 to $150 a year (you can get stripped-down access for free at Spotify if you want). I feel obligated to tell you that if put that in a stock-heavy IRA every month instead, you’d probably have around $56,000 after 40 years.

For those who choose to buy their music, that annual subscription fee would be enough to buy 93 to 116 songs at iTunes’ typical price of $1.29, or more if you buy your songs as full albums.

Owning music means having to store it

For those who buy music, storing and backing up a large music collection can carry a cost as well. Large music collections can clog up your hard drive and force an upgrade. Backing up a constantly-changing music collection can also be a hassle, but as someone who has had his digital music collection decimated by a burglary in the past, I can tell you that recovering from that without a proper backup can be frustrating and costly.

To guard against that, Apple will automatically back up your iTunes purchases and allow you to download them to any device, but if you want to keep your other music in their cloud, you’ll have to pay $25 a year. Google Play allows you to store up to 20,000 songs for free, but former Google Reader users like me know better than to depend on their free services to stick around. Amazon also offers a pay-to-play service that offers up to 50GB of space for $25 a year.

Sorry, music renters don’t have rights

The convenience of streaming allowing you to send music to just about every device is balanced out by a major drawback: labels and artists can, at any time, decide they’re no longer interested in streaming and pull music from the service where you’ve lovingly added them to every custom playlist. On the other hand, once you’ve bought and downloaded a track, it can’t be pulled back on you.

Bottom line: Basically, if you buy more than one album a month, streaming is the cheaper option. Less than that, and you may just want to buy the music, but again, you’ll have to arrange storage and backups if you want to hold on to it.