Subscriptions are everywhere, whether we like them or not. In fact, a report ominously titled The End of Ownership in 2020 said that 78% of adults had at least one active subscription. In the UK that figure increases further, with adults having on average 2.7 active subscriptions. Overall, the subscription economy has grown by 459% over the past nine years.
For the companies providing the subscription, it makes a lot of sense — guaranteed income every month plus consistent, real-time data on how their products are being used, making it easier to both fund and plan new content. Plus there are those who forget to cancel their free trials — according to YouGov, people in the UK waste £800m a year on uncancelled trials.
For the consumer though, it’s not all bad. The abundance of choice and convenience versus the low price per month often feels like a no-brainer, even if the reality is you watch the same shows over and over again, or just leave your subscription active in the hope something interesting might be on the horizon.
That FOMO will feel familiar to the modern producer and music maker, who are constantly bombarded with the latest plugins, sample packs or DAW updates that they need in order to take their career ‘to the next level’. It’s a tempting proposition too — when the path to ‘success’ is often nebulous, it can be rational to put it down to tools over talent, luck or both. Maybe if I had this new EQ, synth or compressor, things would be different? It’s the marketing voice behind almost all of how modern plugins are sold, and as subscription plans have begun to make their way into our DAWs, we’re heading towards an even heavier onslaught of abundance over efficiency. Let’s explore how this new era of plugin ‘ownership’ might play out.
As subscription plans make their way to our DAWs, we’re heading towards a heavier onslaught of abundance over efficiency
Most major plugin and DAW brands offer some kind of subscription to essentially rent their products, either as a continual rent, a rent-to-own or alongside a one-off purchase option.
Recently, Universal Audio introduced the ability to rent a selection of their highly-acclaimed plugs for the first time without UAD hardware to power them. Waves, a long-running name in the audio plugin community, launched their subscription model in 2020, while Slate Digital was early on the scene with their All Access Pass in 2019. Even earlier still was Splice, who started their rent-to-own service in 2018, as did Propellerheads with Reason. Native Instruments, iZotope, Output, Roland, Plugin Alliance and many more all offer subscription models, with a range of plugin numbers and price points.
Let’s take a look at the three models offered in more detail: Continuous renting essentially means paying for access to a suite of plugins on a monthly basis. Prices vary, but for example, Roland’s Cloud and UAD Spark both cost $19.99 a month, while Waves’ subscription model starts at $6.99 a month for 16 plugins. Rent-to-own essentially means you rent the plugin until the cost of your rental adds up to the full price of that plugin, then you own the license and don’t have to pay monthly anymore. Buying a full license outright is what you might expect — paying for a license that you own immediately, with no further instalments.
Rent-to-own is an excellent middle-ground model. It genuinely offers access to pro tools for beginners or amateurs for an affordable price — once the rental costs reach the price of the plugin on the market, it switches to ownership and the rent stops. Splice offers this service with 70 plugins currently available from the likes of Arturia, Korg and D16. It would be great to see rent-to-own happen on a wider scale.
The Creator Economy
For the plugin developers, subscription models make a lot of sense. It offers access to the beginner market who would never have paid even £50 for one plugin. It’s also a genuine solution to piracy. Subscriptions make it much easier to facilitate support as auto-updates can be triggered remotely and usage data can be analysed in real-time to find solutions. In fact, ongoing insights about how plugins are used can be gathered as users log in to their VSTs and AUs inside their DAW, something that was never possible before. There's also the chance of a slice of the £800m 'set and forget' pie.
As well as the obvious points above, the pandemic saw a huge uptake in new creatives and a booming so-called ‘creator economy’. As we’ve written about previously, music tech products — hardware and software — saw record sales as Covid forced the world inside and provided many with the chance to learn a new skill. Faced with a whole new market of curious hobbyists along with existing beginners, who can blame developers and software companies for lowballing newcomers to tempt them into their software ecosystem?
It’s not all a cynical ploy though, many subscription plans do offer good value for money in the short term, even for professionals. But the problem arises when you take a step back and look at the long term impact. Sure, £9.99 a month might be cheaper than buying 30 plugins upfront, but for pro users who rely on a range of plugins and brands to complete their work, things could easily top £50-to-£60 a month, or much more for those that use a variety of brands in their mix chain, adding up across the year. Companies will argue it’s still cheaper to subscribe for even five years than to buy their whole plugin suite, and that may be true — but it's a false economy to compare everything you could have to one or two things you actually want. It would cost you £82m to buy all the songs on Spotify at the old cost iTunes cost of 99p per track, which makes £9.99 a month seem like a fair trade. But how often do you listen to the same artists and songs over and over?
Breaking down the rental models gives you a better picture of the cost of renting your plugs. For example, iZotope’s high-end mastering solution Ozone Advanced 9 costs $499 for a license. Splice offers it as a Rent-to-Own solution for $19.99 a month for 25 months, which is equal to $499.75. iZotope themselves offer a membership plan for $19.99 a month that includes Ozone Pro, as well as RX Pro, Neutron Pro, Vocal Synth Pro and more — 11 plugins in total. After five years, it’ll cost you $1,199, but you won’t own anything. And that’s just one subscription. Albeit you will get every update assumedly for ‘free’ as part of the membership.
It’s also worth saying that with iZotope, if you do cancel your subscription, your audio will still play with previous settings active, but you can’t engage the plugin. The same goes with Output’s Arcade. Once you unsubscribe from Slate, for example, you can’t access the plugin at all and the audio is muted.
This isn’t about hardware versus software, it’s about encouraging a deeper understanding between producers and their tools
Less is more
The modern DAW comes with more tools than a million-pound studio in the ’80s, before you even begin to add third-party tools. Of course, music production has changed radically and no one is calling for a throwback to the days of manually writing down hardware presets with a pen and paper. But it’s not radical to suggest that having fewer tools that you know well over endlessly scrolling through 25 clones of the same hardware EQ is probably better for creativity. In fact, studies have shown that the less tools we have for a task, the more creative we are in completing it. As hardware becomes more affordable, smaller and more powerful, compelling arguments have been made to ditch the DAW altogether in favour of sequencers, synths, samplers and drum machines. This isn’t about hardware versus software, it’s about encouraging a deeper understanding between producers and their tools.
There’s also the issue of longevity. Pro users who work with multiple clients across mixing, mastering and songwriting, are locked into renting indefinitely, in case an old project needs to be revisited and tweaked. As mentioned, some brands will let you play the audio from an unsubscribed plugin, so you can still bounce your track, while others won’t open at all if your subscription isn’t active. On top of that, you can’t sell the plugin license. Granted not an easy process in the past regardless, but still, a valid point as we move away from ownership. On top of that, just like your favourite show may be removed without warning, you have no control over what plugins may disappear from your plan in the future. Of course, you could argue plugins can also be added at no extra cost, but again, you’ve no say over that either.
There’s no doubt that plugin subscriptions will be welcomed with open arms by many producers, and many of the plugin creators. Plugins have struggled to deal with piracy for decades, while also being locked into sales cycles meaning vastly under-cutting their own prices multiple times a year. So, subscriptions do offer a solution to many legacy problems in the plugin community. For independent plugin developers though, with teams of one or two people, bigger companies offering subscriptions could force them to do the same to compete. But with less of a catalogue to offer, and a much smaller team to create new plugs, it’s a much tougher ask. The recent merging of Native Instruments, iZotope, Plugin Alliance and Brainworx — companies that all previously offered their own subs models — hints that more mega-bundle subscriptions are on the way.
No one’s forcing companies to rely on subscriptions alone and stop selling individual licenses. But for the myriad of reasons mentioned above, it’s not a stretch to imagine a future where subs are the dominant business model. Already, it’s not possible to use Output’s popular Arcade without a subscription. You can't use UAD's plugins natively without subscribing to Spark. For DJs, rekordbox DJ is no longer sold as an individual license — you have to pay a monthly or yearly fee. If more and more companies choose this path, those who cherry-pick plugs from a myriad of developers could find themselves lumped with five or six subscriptions just to access five or six plugins.
It’s unlikely the whole plugin market will follow this trend, but it’s a slippery slope that needs to be put in context. FOMO is a powerful tool, but it’s important to ask yourself: Do I really need 51 compressors? (Actually, yes you do. Sorry.)