Music streaming has a ‘tsundoku’ problem

Photo Credit: Ed Robertson

The following MBW column comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a London-based music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the PigHis new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.


In Japanese culture there is the concept of tsundoku. It means when someone buys so many books that the very act of reading them becomes overwhelming. So they sit unread as yet more books are added to the teetering piles, the blank bibliomaniac behind bars.

Tsundoku generally relates to tangible objects but it increasingly feels pertinent to the subscription streaming age.

Case in point: it hasn’t happened quite yet, but I am this close to cancelling my Netflix subscription.

The loss of my £6.99 a month is, I imagine, not going to throw Netflix’s share price into a tailspin. It will not, I presume, trigger an emergency board meeting at Netflix HQ.

If I cancel, I will surely get some passive-aggressive (automated) emails and push notifications asking me to reconsider or telling me [name of hot new show here] has just “dropped” and I am not going to be able to see it unless I come back into the Netflix fold.

The decision to think about maybe looking at cancelling my subscription is not tied to a price hike in the subscription cost, where Netflix added a whole £1 to my bill from April this year.

The decision to think about maybe looking at cancelling my subscription is down to the fact that my viewing on Netflix is capricious to say the least.

This is completely my fault, of course. It’s not Netflix, it’s me.

Some months, I give it a decent rattle and watch a fair amount (I choose not to “binge”, thank you) of what is on offer despite Netflix having one of the least intuitive search and discovery interfaces of any major media product in the world. Honestly, it’s shocking.

Its algorithm seems built less on taste and affinity and more on engendering a feeling of FOMO: “This is number 1 in the UK RIGHT NOW and you will be a figure of ridicule if you do not watch it all immediately.”

I am OK with being a figure of ridicule. I have made peace with that part of my life.

Then other months, my account gathers digital dust. Sometimes it’s two or three months before I think about spending a desultory 10 minutes trying to find something I might care to watch. I sigh as another £5.99 (now £6.99) is syphoned out of my bank account as a tax on my indolence, insouciance and indecision.

I am lazy so I probably won’t cancel… quite yet.


All of this – and the media hoopla recently about Netflix losing 200,000 subscribers in Q1 while Disney+ added 7.9 million new subscribers in the same period – raises the arguments around media saturation and the attention recession.

But I quickly tired of thinking about that and instead thought about how Netflix and every other subscription service could hold onto waverers like me.

These services are all built on what they regard as a seductive premise, offering us everything we can “eat” from their catalogues for a flat price each month. On paper, it’s a tremendous deal. In reality, it is presenting us with an existential conundrum of inconsistency.

There are months where it seems the bargain of the year. And there are months where it seems like the streaming media equivalent of a three-card Monte.

“The fixation in the DSP world currently is on growth at all costs; this is why no one will increase prices. But there needs to be planning for when the market hits saturation point or when people start to audit the sheer number of subscriptions they have and make cold decisions to dump the ones they use least.”

Netflix managed to raise its price and not quite lose me, but there will inevitably come a tipping point or a breaking point – even a tipreaking point – where Netflix ends up making the decision for me to cancel. Eventually I will tire of paying for something I use infrequently and sporadically. Like it’s a lawnmower. Or a stamp. Or a wedding dress.

There will surely be Spotify and Apple Music subscribers in a similar boat to the one upon which I am aimlessly drifting across the vast expanse of the Netflix content ocean. They are paying for something now but there will be a mounting suspicion that they are not making the most of it. A few hours here and there some month does not feel like a subscription being put to its best use. A library of 80 million songs is irrelevant if you only spend a few hours some months chipping away at it.

There is, for some, a harrowing volume and value disparity.


If Netflix changed its pricing to, say, £2.99 a month but limited me to, say, 10 hours of streaming a month, I would happily pay it and stay with them. £5.99 would still get me unlimited streaming, but if I was on my £2.99 tier and exceeded my 10 hours a month, I would have the option, like a bolt-on mobile data package, to pay a bit more to exceed my monthly allowance.

The All Or Nothing subscription model really needs to be updated to an All, Something, A Bit Less Than Something Or Nothing subscription model. There has to be flexible pricing that understands not everyone consumes in the same way or to the same extent.

There needs to be more thought put into what we can start to understand as two-way retention pricing: how low can you drop the price so it still makes economic sense for both sides to have a consumer wander in every few months, watch a bit and then wander off again?

Here the arithmetic of ARPU needs to be reimagined as Attention Retention Per User.

These services can see which users are voracious in their streaming and which ones pick at it, pushing the shows or the music around their plate and not finishing anything. The pickers are the ones most at risk of leaving. So how do they stop them from leaving?

At the moment, there are more new subscribers coming in than there are old ones leaving, so the exit of picky consumers is nothing to worry about; but any fixation on platform growth is detracting from the long-term problem of subscribers falling out of the system and the reasons why they are falling out of the system.

If they don’t address these people, the decline, when it happens, could be a lot bigger than they dare anticipate.


Maybe it is time to look back at how eMusic used to work, understanding that some consumers consume more than other consumers, so they created different tiers based around how voracious or how persnickety a user was.

There was also bloom.fm attempting this tiered access model in the early 2010s, but it was somewhat confused/confusing and it lost too much ground as Spotify was powering ahead. There is, however, something in it that a market-leading service with many years of user data at its fingertips, rather than a niche player living hand to mouth with its funding, could pull off.

The fixation in the DSP world currently is on growth at all costs; this is why no one will increase prices. But there needs to be planning for when the market hits saturation point or when people start to audit the sheer number of subscriptions they have and make cold decisions to dump the ones they use least.

For digital music subscribers, the sinking feeling of tsundoku is not so much about buckling under the cruelty of volume as being quietly crushed by the fallacy of value.Music Business Worldwide

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