Can you resell old MP3s now that you’ve gone to streaming?

Today, you can get practically every song ever recorded by subscribing to a music streaming service. Whether you prefer Apple Music, Spotify, or something else, there’s a massive amount of content out there. These new music services have free or low-cost options, suggest new music for you, and remember what you’ve listened to before. There’s practically no reason to buy new music anymore. That’s the good news.

Here’s the bad news: if you’ve been getting your songs legally, there is a fair chance that you’ve spent $5,000 on music in your life. Plain and simple: you’ll never get that back.

How it used to work.

Back in “the day” there were used record stores. When a hunk of vinyl cost $8, you could sell back old ones that were in good shape for $1 or $2. Not a great return on investment but in retrospect it seems better than nothing. Chances are you went through this with your vinyl, you might have gone through it with your CDs, and then you regretted going through it with your vinyl since it sounded so good back then.

Once you were done with physical media, you probably started snapping up songs on iTunes or one of the other online stores. It was so easy, at about a dollar a song or ten bucks an album. You might have built up a pretty good library. Some of it might have come illegally, some might have come from ripping old CD’s, but I bet most of it you bought and paid for. And now here’s the really bad news.

It’s official: those MP3s are worthless.

It’s beginning to look like your investment in downloadable music is nothing but a big fat money suck, because you can’t ever resell your digital music. At least not according to a 2013 court decision covered by CNET. When you download that music you don’t own it; it’s just a license. Unlike physical media where you can at least say there is something there to own, the computer files are not yours, apparently, and so you have no right to resell them. Reselling them, it turns out, is actually pretty much like copying them, and you definitely don’t have the right to do that.

So then what?

Well, if it’s on your hard drive, it’s yours until you die. You can’t give it away legally, as we previously discovered. If it’s in the cloud… it could just disappear at any time.

This is the “dark side of convenience.” We’ve traded walls full of albums for a cell phone the size of a single cassette, and the price we pay for that is never getting to keep anything, at least not with the laws the way they are.

Clearly something has to change. There are too many cases where people will want to give away something they paid for, and common sense tells them they can do it. People pass away, people get divorced, and hey, people just decide that they didn’t like Lou Reed as much as they thought they did. There are plenty of reasons that someone might want to pass on a digital music collection and if they can’t do it legally they will just do it illegally. Then no one wins.

But the upside…

I started this article talking about streaming music services. It’s true, you don’t own any of that content and it all goes away when you stop paying for it. Your friends and relatives probably pay too, though. They won’t necessarily care if any of those old files transfer to them. As for selling them, well you can’t. So there’s a lesson learned, but what can you do? Sometimes that’s just how technology works. This isn’t the first time you’ve laid out money for something that didn’t hold its value. Sadly it’s not likely to be the last.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.