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How subscriptions took over our lives

On platforms like Substack and Patreon, subscriptions can be emotional purchases. But others, like Amazon Prime, feel more like utilities.

A person opens up a streaming service platform on their iPad.
Quarantine delayed people’s inevitable streaming fatigue — instead, it led consumers to renew or add more entertainment subscriptions.
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The first service Everdeen Mason recalls subscribing to is Netflix, sometime in the early 2010s. The login was shared with her entire family, and over time, as more streaming platforms launched, she began strategizing with her sister to diversify their offerings, adding Spotify, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime, and anime-centric service Funimation into the mix.

Their stable had been growing, but during the pandemic, her subscriptions increased to include more direct donations to creators. A self-described avid budgeter, Mason currently spends about $120 per month on 11 subscriptions, from streaming services to Substacks and artist Patreon accounts — up from last year’s average of $94 per month.

Quarantine and the demise of digital media were driving factors in Mason’s decision to support more independent artists and writers. The pandemic is partly responsible for facilitating a subscription boom over the past year, but it’s also contributed to the growth of the creator economy, as more people make things from home. “I’m 32 with no kids, no student loans, and no plans to buy a house again,” Mason, the editorial director for the New York Times’s Games team, said. “I’m very much someone who will pay an artist for a thing that they’ve made.”

The monthly $5, $10, and $15 credit-line charges add up, though. When the subscription business model was pioneered by news publishers in the 17th century, there was little competition. Within the past two decades, all sorts of businesses have begun clamoring for a slice of the subscriber pie, from consumer product startups and retailers like Dollar Shave Club to media organizations and internet personalities.

A few major players have become so integral to people’s buying or streaming patterns, like Netflix or Amazon Prime, that consumers approach them almost as a sort of utility. Looking at a subscription landscape that included media, the global consulting firm McKinsey separated subscriptions into two general categories: direct-to-consumer box services, like weekly meal kits and monthly coffee deliveries, that improve a customer’s life or introduce them to new products and brands; and streaming media subscriptions. (Looking directly at e-commerce, they broke the categories down further, into product boxes for replenishment, for curation, and for access.)

Increasingly, though, entertainment-adjacent or virtual subscriptions are competing for attention against streaming: Cloud gaming and fitness, to name a few, are two markets that are growing. And across the slate of creator economy platforms, from Patreon to OnlyFans to Substack, more people are paying for creator-focused content, with the intent of consistently supporting the work and livelihoods of their chosen creators.

These offerings fulfill different needs in people’s lives, but if grouped under the subscription label, these services appear to compete with one another on an individual’s budget sheet. The way Mason sees it, there’s a difference between subscribing to an independent artist versus a multibillion-dollar streaming service.

“To me, paying for someone’s Substack or Patreon seems more impactful than it does to pay for Netflix and have a thousand movies,” she told me. “I’m someone who cares about the arts, and I feel like I have a responsibility to spread this money around and allow people to earn a living by making their art.” She plans to reevaluate her subscription budget once normal life resumes, but she’ll likely keep most of the Substack and Patreon subscriptions she has accrued.

There is an emotional bifurcation that has emerged in the consumption habits that Mason gestures toward: subscriptions that users find useful or entertaining (generally corporate-backed goods and services) versus products that demonstrate one’s personal style, taste, or even morals, in the form of creator subscriptions. Regardless of one’s philosophy, we are all becoming subscribers (or subs, if you prefer the shorthand derived from kink terminology) to one thing or another. If anything, today’s subscription landscape might be better divided not into content and products, but into one category of content and products the shopper thinks of as utilities and another that they consider emotional or moral investments.

While some argue that subscription fatigue, particularly among streaming platforms, is on the horizon, it raises questions about how often we buy and whether we want to be proactive in that consumption. Some consumers might find passively being billed for recurring services useful, or at least be browbeaten into believing they do. Others just want the product with no strings attached. “I just want to outright buy the shit,” one Reddit user complained in r/rant. “Fuuuuuck all these monthly subscriptions.”

There are too many streaming platforms, but overall “subscription fatigue” isn’t likely

Netflix has spent years tolerating freeloaders. In 2016, long before the arrival of Disney+, Apple TV+, Showtime, Discovery+, and the so-called streaming wars, its CEO dismissed password sharing as a concern, allowing freeloaders (like myself) to exist blissfully unchecked. In March, however, Netflix hinted at an end to shared accounts by testing a feature requiring users to verify their access via text or email.

The move has arrived at a time when most people are overwhelmed by the options of streaming subscription choices foisted upon them. More than half of the 2,009 respondents to Deloitte’s 2021 digital media trends survey expressed frustration toward subscribing to multiple services to access the content they want. But increasingly, streaming platforms are being bundled up into various deals offered by mega-media conglomerates.

Quarantine delayed the inevitable streaming fatigue, instead leading many Americans to renew or add more entertainment subscriptions: Netflix added 15.8 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2020, and Disney+ hit 50 million subscribers in 2020, nearly doubling its subscriptions between February and April. But as the world crawls toward normalcy, growth has inevitably slowed. Netflix added 4 million subscribers this quarter, missing its forecasted goal of 6 million.

“The streaming wars are going to depend on franchises, if not name brands that people recognize, trust, and rely on,” said Henry Jenkins, a media scholar and professor at the University of Southern California. “Disney owns creative interests in almost every franchise that attracts fans at this point, and HBO Max has the DC Comics and the Wonder films.”

A worthwhile original series or acquisition could prompt consumers to subscribe, even those whose streaming appetites are supposedly full. That was the case for Kim Lear, a consultant based in Minneapolis, who subscribed to Apple TV+ to watch Ted Lasso. She plans to stay subscribed for the show’s second season, but had no interest in the service when it launched in November 2019. If, say, Apple TV+ fails to produce another hit show, it’s likely that some consumers would ax the service to free up their budgets. As more services enter the arena, viewers have more options to choose from and are constantly reevaluating the platforms’ value.

“Clustering content together behind a paywall and calling it a streaming service doesn’t automatically mean people are going to be drawn toward it in their search for entertainment,” Jenkins said. And even if consumers are fatigued, the bundling together of these platforms establishes an incentive for people to remain subscribed, whether they’re actively paying for the service or receiving it as an add-on deal through a purchase or existing subscription.

It’s possible, then, to imagine a world in which we keep subscribing — and spending — on more and more content. Increasingly, the line between corporate-produced “entertainment” and content made by regular people and small creators has blurred as we spend more of our lives online. Everything is content, whether it’s free or paid.

“Content is still a commodity, inherently shaped by the platforms that circulate it and responsive to their incentives, monetary or otherwise,” wrote Drew Austin in Real Life magazine. “Rather than overthrowing the corporate entertainment industry, the internet has led us to internalize that industry’s logic, precipitating what is often called the ‘creator economy.’”

Streaming is so frequently discussed in the vein of fatigue because it no longer has a dominant stronghold on the entertainment subscription model; its platform offerings are not necessarily unique (Friends was famously moved from Netflix to HBO Max, to fans’ dismay), unlike the Xbox Game Pass or even Peloton. Plus, the corporate streaming model is expected to scale; it flatly measures success by the number of subscribers on a platform, with little consideration for fans’ relationship to the product. While the venture-backed platforms and tools that bolster the creator economy are also required to scale, individual artists and creators don’t necessarily need to. So these subscriptions appear more meaningful, making creative patronage feel personalized.

The strong bonds and shortfalls of niche content

Jenkins, who has published seminal research on fandom and participatory culture, believes people have very intense emotional connections to niche content, particularly that offered by creators and personalities people can develop intimate relationships with.

“We may seek out content that perfectly aligns with our interests, but we also can be invested in things that are most visible in popular culture,” he told me. “Both interests can coexist since they represent levels of cultural production with different audiences, producers, and content.”

For Lear, subscriptions to HBO, Hulu, and Netflix are non-negotiable since they keep her family entertained. “We’re just always going to have those,” she told me, “but I’ve increased how much I spend on news and reading with Substack. There was important work being done around the elections and the Black Lives Matter movement, and I generally believe people should be paid for their work.”

She is, though, wistful for content that’s made for mass consumption. Even if a movie is released on the most popular streaming service, the paywall reinforces America’s fractured media environment. More than three-quarters of American consumers subscribe to a streaming service, according to Statista, with Netflix having the most subscribers over Hulu and Amazon. “We live in such extreme echo chambers, and as someone who works with clients all over the country, it’s nice to find things, even a show, that everyone can agree on to like,” Lear told me. “I think there’s still a place in pop culture for people to enjoy something together.”

There is also likely a generational gap between what younger and older consumers are willing to subscribe to. More Gen Z consumers surveyed by Deloitte ranked playing video games, streaming music, and using social media above watching movies and television shows as their favorite entertainment activity.

Mason thinks millennials and Gen Z are interested in paying for more intangible experiences that they have strong emotional connections to. There is a glamour to being a patron of the arts, even if she’s contributing only a few dollars each month. “For my immigrant parents, they like spending on tangible goods and buying something they can see or touch,” she said. “I don’t have those same illusions. I have paid money for a PNG file of a person’s art.”

Yogeeta, a 27-year-old engineer in New York City, began supporting seven artists on Patreon and one Twitch streamer, in addition to her pre-pandemic streaming expenses on Spotify, Disney+, Crunchyroll, and Amazon Prime. (She asked to refrain from using her last name out of privacy concerns.) Her disposable income used to go toward Broadway shows and comic book conventions, but even when those events resume, Yogeeta doesn’t think she’ll unsubscribe unless she’s significantly cash-strapped.

“As long as I can afford the Patreons and if they’re still available, I’ll probably stay subscribed to them,” she told me. “If they were to change their [artistic] style significantly, I might have to reconsider, but otherwise, I’m happy to continue supporting small artists.”

In other words, those like Mason and Yogeeta — generally millennials in white-collar roles — are willing to stretch their budgets, not just for creator-focused subscriptions but for products that have distinctive value. As someone who loves classic and foreign films, I personally categorize movie services like Mubi and The Criterion Channel as separate entities from the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+. This distinction doesn’t jibe with conventional wisdom, maybe it doesn’t even make sense, but it is of a piece with what I hear from other subscribers. People have finite attention spans, and to some degree, are picky with what they consume despite the overload of content available. According to Mason, “You can’t algorithmize something that’s a matter of taste and personal style.”