'Steve Jobs once nixed my music-subscription pitch'

Former MTV, MySpace exec pitched Jobs the idea of iTunes-MTV music-subscription partnership. Jobs passed. But has the Apple CEO changed his mind about subscription models?

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read

Former MySpace, Sling Media, and MTV executive Jason Hirschhorn has been in the thick of the digital-media world for years.

Jason Hirschhorn Jason Hirschhorn/Facebook

He's likely had a lot of interesting experiences, not the least of which was a meeting with Steve Jobs about six years ago when Hirschhorn got to pitch the Apple CEO on a music-subscription service.

As he tweeted this morning, referring to a time when he was chief digital officer of MTV Networks: "Once pitched Steve Jobs that music [subscriptions] were future and that iTunes + MTV do it."

The response from Jobs was, "Jason, you are a nice guy, but all your ideas are wrong."

Hirschhorn's recollection comes as subscription music services are getting loads of attention. The U.S. is supposed to see new offerings from Google and Spotify, as well Apple, sometime this year. Apple is reportedly working on a new cloud music service that would stream music from Apple's servers to users' Internet-connected devices. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Apple would deliver the streaming music from the MobileMe platform.

Update 7:49 a.m. PT: Hirschhorn answered the e-mail I sent in response to his tweet. Here's what he remembers about that day with Jobs:

It was me, Van Toffler (president of MTV Networks Music Group), Tom Freston (CEO of MTV-parent company Viacom), and Jimmy Iovine (music producer, chairman of Interscope-Geffen). It was Jimmy who introduced us to Jobs, and we flew up to Pixar to go meet him. I'm a product guy, so it was thrilling for me. If you're a product guy, Steve Jobs is the guy you want to meet. He was incredibly gracious and nice.

We had been thinking up ideas about how we could work with Apple...So, I give him my views on the future of music, and I was always big on subscription services. He listened and then he said, "Jason, you seem like a nice guy, but your ideas are all wrong." He was so blunt and funny, the whole room burst into laughter.

Later, he takes us on a tour of Pixar and shows us some clips of the movie they're working on, and as we're walking around the beautiful Pixar campus, Freston turns to me and says: "Don't talk in the next meeting." We laughed.

Hirschhorn didn't hang his head over the fact that one of his heroes didn't agree with him. He continued to believe subscription services are a better way for consumers to obtain music. But he wanted to understand why Jobs didn't.

Apple knew they didn't have to go into subscriptions at the time because they had such a huge lead [in downloads]. You watch Apple, they move when they need to move. I remember looking at the economics, and the amount of money Apple might have made on a subscription service would have been less than the money they were seeing on download revenue per user at the time.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs James Martin/CNET

But after years of double-digit growth, sales of song downloads are flat. It seems everyone in the music industry is predicting that consumers will prefer to pay a small fee to access music stored in the cloud. Plenty of critics of this model say people don't want anyone acting as a gatekeeper to their music and that unless you own the bits on your hard drive, you're just renting tunes.

Hirschhorn said he understands this, but he says subscription services will win if they can serve up enough benefit to consumers to offset these concerns, such as offering users mobility, social programming and the right price.

And, who knows? There's always the chance Apple might come up with a recipe no one has anticipated, and that meets needs consumers didn't even know they had.

"I'm as big a fan of Steve Jobs as I am of any of my favorite film directors or ballplayers," Hirschhorn said. "I've watched Apple for years. Ultimately, I think Apple thinks that they are the ones that help consumers decide what they like. They see themselves as the ones who create products that people want. I don't think Apple does a lot of market testing, because asking a consumer what they want--a lot of times they don't know. Apple innovates."