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Open Channel: The Subscription Kerfuffle

Unhappy that your favorite recording software moved to a subscription model? You might be better off than you think.

Craig Anderton
Craig Anderton

Let’s talk about subscriptions. The concept that causes blind rage in some people, shrugged shoulders by others, and yet for many, sighs of relief.

Yes, I’m talking about having to pay a significant chunk of money on a regular basis just to keep using a product. And, of course, the worst part by far is that when you stop paying that chunk of money, you’re dead in the water. No more recording for you.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because you were brought up on the original subscription model: reel-to-reel tape. Sure, you owned your 2-inch, 24-track multitrack recorder, but you had to shell out around $150 to $250 every time you wanted to record 44 minutes of audio at 15 ips. Ouch.


Adobe shook up the software world when it switched to a subscription-only model. The reaction was swift and merciless: Hell no! Yet, a few years later, Adobe was riding high because…well, people subscribed. That’s great for the company, but is it good for consumers? Let’s start with the bad news.

Being beholden to a company in an uncertain world is bad enough. Companies are bought, assimilated, go out of business, or change direction (hey, Windows users, remember when Apple bought Logic?).

With a subscription, your work is held hostage. Suppose you switch DAWs after using the same one for many years. You have lots of legacy projects, but if you ever want to access them, you have to keep paying for a subscription regardless of how often you need your older work. Yes, that stinks…but there are workarounds.

  • Renting. This is already becoming common. For example, if someone uses a lot of Steven Slate plug-ins that I don’t have, and sends me a project to mix, I can rent them for the duration of working on the project. Or, suppose that after years of using Pro Tools, you switch to something else—but then you get a juicy movie gig that requires Pro Tools. Just rent the program for as long as you need.
  • “Read-only” mode when a subscription ends. No company does this yet, but a “read-only” program would let you load projects, access files, and render or export them. You wouldn’t be able to record anything new, but at least you wouldn’t lose access to your previous work for porting over to a different DAW.
  • The doomsday scenario. If a company goes out of business, the gloves are off. Do whatever’s needed to score a working version. I won’t rat on you to Interpol.


A subscription is like a marriage. When you’re happy, all is well, but a divorce can have unexpected repercussions. A subscription is a commitment to a company, not just a product. You trust that the company will remain solvent, that there will be ongoing updates to justify the ongoing cost, and that the program’s future iterations will continue to satisfy your needs. That’s a significant basis of trust in a company.

Paradoxically, it may be less of a risk with subscriptions. Companies have to stay in business, or everyone loses. Regular, foreseeable income streams eliminate the boom-or-bust mentality of big annual updates, allowing companies to manage their finances more intelligently.

Open Channel: Vintage Gear Emulations

Open Channel: Welcome to the Renaissance!

Look at the numbers: Adobe is doing better than ever, and even when you could buy new, perpetual Pro Tools licenses, subscriptions were growing at a much faster rate. Let’s also remember that paying $10 or $15 a month for a program lowers the barrier of entry for those who can’t afford to get involved otherwise. That can only help our industry.

A regular income stream also means that companies can allocate R&D resources on a predictable basis. If applied correctly, this makes the program more attractive, so the company retains existing subscribers and brings in new ones. This means there’s more income (and incentive) to improve their offerings.

Then, in exchange for a steady income stream, companies must hold up their end of the bargain and provide an equally steady update stream.

Bugs have to be addressed right away instead of “waiting for the next rev.” Support and feature requests need to be taken seriously. If those improvements are implemented, then customers will remain satisfied and be less likely to jump ship. As the vaguely palindromic adage goes, “You know the best DAW is the DAW you know best.”


Amazingly, despite the pain of shelling out money on a monthly or annual basis, the numbers could work in your favor. When you factor in a program’s initial cost and the cost of updates over time, you may find that after several years, you’ve paid the same amount to “own” the program (which you never owned anyway—read the EULA) as you would have if you’d bought a subscription. But, you’ve had incremental updates that you could absorb over time instead of massive updates that changed your workflow and required weeks (or months) to assimilate.

Like it or not, with a few notable exceptions, subscriptions will continue to proliferate. So…let the games begin! Let’s see which companies give you the most in return for your having faith in their ability to deliver on their promises. The companies that end up being the most successful will be the ones that make you happy you’ve subscribed.