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15 years ago to today

Before streaming services came along, the cost of CDs and DVDs added up.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Students, who usually don't have much cash to spare for entertainment, have more options today.

There are three constants for most people in university: work, a need to distract yourself from that work, and very light bank accounts. Spending thousands of dollars on your education doesn't leave much money for anything else, which can make even the smallest bits of distracting fun feel horrendously expensive.

In decades past, anyone who wanted to listen to an album or watch a movie had to pay. CDs rarely cost less than $15, movie ticket prices always crept up, and owning a DVD or VHS usually cost you even more, let alone the equipment to play it on. Each piece of entertainment required spending an awful lot. Where's the fun in that?

But in the late nineties, something happened at many universities. They offered in-house high-speed Internet, often faster than the rest of the country – and with that, deeply connected networks. In residences and dorms, all you needed to connect with other computers was a friend who had taken a computer science course or two.

And at the same time, piracy was rampant. Compression technology removed nearly all of the effort to copying music and movies – all you needed was a connection with someone else, and trading was a click away. Even those outside dorms could burn whatever they wanted onto a CD. Record and film executives used to worry about people copying music and movies onto tapes; this was much worse.

For cash-strapped university students, this was a life-changer. University networks became unintentional pirating hubs simply because they were home to thousands of teenagers and twentysomethings with minimal-to-zero spending money. Free entertainment abounded. You could watch Trainspotting in a matter of seconds because a guy two buildings over left it on his shared drive. You could hear whatever song the campus bar kept playing by dragging it to your desktop from a computer across the hall. The crudeness-loving target audience for Trailer Park Boys could take advantage of the show's early seasons without ever paying a cable bill.

All of this, of course, was frighteningly and obviously illegal. The companies that make movies and music have spent the past couple of decades scrambling to stop illicit file sharing and convincing people that their products are worth paying for. For a while, it seemed impossible to stop. But now there are alternatives. Netflix has ushered in the era of streaming video, giving cash-strapped students everywhere the chance to hang with Ricky, Julian, Bubbles and the gang – and hundreds of other shows and movies – as much as they want for about $10 a month.

Streaming music, too, has changed how we consume media. At the height of the CD era, albums often cost more than $20 each; today, services such as Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music cost only $10 a month, sometimes less if you can leech onto a family plan. And unlike Netflix, which limits the number of titles available to what it has licensed, most music-streaming services have 30 million or more songs – just about everything you would want from the history of recorded music.

In other words, for about $20 plus tax a month – the cost of a CD 15 years ago – university students can legally receive access to more songs, movies and TV shows on demand than any other time in the history of the postsecondary education system. For once, the money works in your favour.

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