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The Rental Economy and Stuff

I have way more stuff than I need, and a lot of it is tech-related. I’m easily reminded of this because I live in a 750-square-foot apartment in New York City. I don’t have a turntable anymore because it wouldn’t fit — not the turntable so much as the LPs to play on it. I do have an integrated amplifier and floor-standing speakers, which my cat uses to launch himself to places we don’t want him to go. These days, he uses them more than we do.

My priorities have shifted these days. There’s so much good video content available that TV series win my prime time attention. I listen to music every day, but it’s when I’m working, cleaning, making dinner or driving. Sometimes that’s on the good stereo system; more often, it’s just asking Alexa or Google to play Beatles music on a smart speaker because it’s easy and fast. Someday I’ll go back to firing up the stereo system and actually sitting and listening to jazz, something I love doing but just doesn’t fit the daily schedule right now.

“Once upon a time…”

Someday. It’s someday that has gotten me into a clutter cluster. My partner, Liz, and I had a scary conversation the other day about what would happen if Spotify went away. That was sparked by a brief internet outage, but what if it actually went dark (not likely to happen, fortunately, since it made $2.5 billion last quarter and keeps adding subscribers)? Our precious playlists we’ve spent hours and hours carefully curating would go with it, the same dark cloud that’s hanging over all of the music services. We’re all renting our music month to month, and when you think about it, it’s a precarious position to be in.

So maybe that’s why I still have CDs stacked in nooks and crannies around the apartment and in storage, gathering dust and taking up space, even though I haven’t played a CD in years. If I want to play one, I have to use the Blu-ray player or the CD-ROM drive on the office PC, and the office isn’t where I want to relax in my downtime. But if our favorite streaming service went away (or the internet crashed for an extended time we’d still have music because we’d have the shiny discs. Icing on the cake would be that some of them aren’t available on Spotify.

Video is different. There are few movies or shows I want to watch over and over, even though I have a few dozen Blu-rays and DVDs that I’ve accumulated over the years.  If I want to find an old episode of Mad Men, I can search for it. It might be free to stream; if not, I can weigh the value of renting it or buying a season. It’s time to offload the DVDs; it’s just way easier to stream.

Lots of people think so. At a Future of Video conference last week, Parks Associates 72% of U.S. broadband households regularly watch video on multiple streaming platforms. Disc sales, meanwhile, are plummeting. The latest figures from the Digital Entertainment Group a 25% falloff in packaged video sales to $479 million in Q1, while digital sales grew 16% to $7.1 billion. But even some digital video trends are going south. Streaming is where it’s at: Subscription streaming was the only video entertainment segment to grow January-March, rising 27% to $5.9 billion. It seems we all just want to rent.

Gizmodo us that by 2030, technology will have advanced so far “that even the idea of owning objects might be obsolete.” That’s interesting to me but hard to comprehend, having grown up coveting “things.” The author referenced a video from the World Economic Forum five years ago, which predicted that in 2030, “You’ll own nothing” and “whatever you want, you’ll rent.”

It seems I’ve been doing that without thinking about it. I trade in my iPhone every one or two years to stay on top of the latest tech. I get a new Amazon Fire tablet regularly, helped by attractive sale prices during Prime Day. Then I give my old one to a friend. With software updates determining the lifespan of electronics, at some point you have to upgrade, when the software exceeds the processing capability of the hardware. That would be okay if I were okay with letting things go.

Some things are practical to rent. I want my headphones to last as long as possible, for instance. Wear-and-tear takes a toll on the headband and earcups way before the electronics wear out so I’m about to order a replacement kit for my five-year-old Bose SoundLink AE2 headphones because the headband is shedding and leaving black bits in my hair. The kit includes the tiniest of screwdrivers and a replacement band and earcups. I’m hopeful, though not confident, that all the pieces will fit together the way they’re supposed to when I’m finished. In these days of cloud-based everything, I’m looking forward to a hands-on experience.

The writing is on the wall, though. The rental economy is here for the foreseeable future. I admire it, too. An in The New York Times in May noted what it called an irrevocable shift in consumer psychology since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Along with a growing reliance on e-commerce and online services, greater concern for sustainability has prompted millions of consumers to reconsider their previous spending patterns,” it said. The sharing economy is reshaping numerous aspects of society, “like the prioritizing of access over ownership.” That article was centered on the fashion industry, but the idea is applicable to all sorts of things.

I need music and entertainment. I don’t need more stuff. I think I’m starting to get the hang of the new economy.

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