Is Streaming Music Worth Listening To?

Fans say  streaming music actually sounds rather good now. Even audiophiles.

Fans say  streaming music actually sounds rather good now. Even audiophiles.

Some music lovers who think of themselves as “audiophiles” may be such elitists they ignore or distain the new streaming music services that are available these days.  Include some online streaming in your agenda to gain many advantages beyond listening only to local, personal libraries of saved studio masters on plastic media, network drives, or Cloud storage. 

Streaming music won’t stain your image as an audiophile or pollute your pristine ears.  Your listener’s merit badge won’t be revoked.  On the contrary, streaming sources can help you gain in both scope and depth as a true music lover in ways the slower and far more expensive process of accumulating studio masters can never match.

This is not to say anyone should abandon a cherished collection, painstakingly accumulated over a period of years, or even decades.  Personalized caches of beloved music are priceless.  Just don’t make it a one-or-the-other thing.  Listen to both collected libraries and online streaming strategically to support and extend your audio hobby’s pleasures and fulfillment far beyond what could ever be achieved by relying on one or the other exclusively.  Streaming can extend your listening pleasure, expand your knowledge of music, and broaden your listening experience across endless new discoveries.  

As online streaming evolves, it actually holds potential to resolve issues that have been retarding the evolution of audio far too long.  Here are the main aspects of streaming that I predict make it the medium of the future.

Ogg Vorbis format can be set up to sound much better than Mp3 even at 320 Kbps.  

Ogg Vorbis format can be set up to sound much better than Mp3 even at 320 Kbps.  

Really Decent Sound -- the best streaming services probably sound better than you expect.  I listen to Spotify mostly now that MOG died (officially yesterday, R.I.P.) and I’m happy to have found it.  Spotify plays the Ogg Vorbis format that is audibly better engineered for higher fidelity than other lossy, compressed file types.  The music quality is clearly a cut above Mp3, even at at the improved 320 Kbps density used by many services these days.

Really Low Cost -- compared to any previous distribution mode, online streaming is the best music deal in all of human history.  Tens of millions of good-sounding tracks to pick from and play all day long for 10 bucks a month.  How can you not love that?  It’ clearly the best all-around value in the history of music and the playback quality is getting better steadily.

Save Mode -- Streaming is not always limited to radio mode, as in somebody else’s playlist, like broadcast. The better services offer local background file saving to augment real-time streaming.  This allows you to accumulate an encoded library of selections on a device for off-line listening.  Then you have a temporary and portable DRM-protected collection that remains available until you dump it or stop your subscription (DRM = digital rights management = copy protection.)  

You don’t need to be online to play your saved music.  However, since sustained access is tied to your continuing subscription, it’s not “downloading” in the usual sense.  You’re just renting this music and you pay nothing extra to save it.  It is a huge value to be allowed to hear music at will without buying it.  You probably don’t consider these formats collectable, anyway.  

Streaming has relaxed my stance.  I’ve become a lot less greedy about grabbing up everything I like.  My focus is more relaxed and casual knowing tons of music I like will be there for me.

Spotify -- my new best friend for streaming.

Spotify -- my new best friend for streaming.

Selection Queuing -- In addition to radio mode (which makes me nuts) I can save playlists of my favorite artists’ albums for shuffle play, my preferred mode.  You can search on an artist, retrieve their available albums, pick one, and listen to it entirely without having other selections wedged in robotically.

Gargantuan Libraries -- You have unparalleled access to huge Cloud collections of music, in all genres, on the order of tens of millions of tracks.  There is something for everyone and a lot for most.  More music than anyone could listen to in a lifetime.  This is tremendously empowering.

Music Discovery -- The algorithms for finding new music are good and continuing to improve.  Spotify (and presumably others) offers suggestions based on automated analysis of your listening choices and habits.  If you attend to this feature and try out a few new tracks once in a while your musical horizons will never stop expanding.  I have a rotating favorites list now.  I’m listening to music I would probably have never found any other way.

Artist Opportunity -- from time to time we hear artists whine that they “don’t get paid enough” for streaming music. How shall we interpret that?  A musician who does not get paid enough does not get played enough.  Why not?

Music reaches the masses as never before at any previous time in history.  Nobody owes an artist something just because they take a posture among peers.  If they make music people like, they get discovered and played, and the more popular they become the more they get played and the more they earn.  The distribution model is changing and this is the new reality in musical performance -- you either find and please an audience or you get ignored.  That part is constant.  If you’re one of these whiners, get a day job until your talent matures.

An important distinction lies in earning plays and payment rather than getting paid for just releasing music.  Many talented, upcoming musicians find exposure and build popularity via streaming, which is “the new radio.”  Mature artists with solid talent and large collections just keep on expanding.

Excellent Player Apps -- again using Spotify and the now-defunct MOG as examples, the interface can be free, cool, easy to use, intuitive, sleek, fast, and great looking.  The functions usually mimic one or more accustomed historic listening modes, such as radio, concert, mix tapes, selecting from your collection, by genre, etc. (France) is one of the most mature streaming systems.  Stream, save, or buy downloads on one site. (France) is one of the most mature streaming systems.  Stream, save, or buy downloads on one site.

Great Promise -- This part I like best.  One streaming service is called Qobuz. It’s based in France and is one of the oldest and most evolved.  They offer streaming and file saving and you can also buy downloads in 16-bit CD quality and 24-bit master quality.  Download coverage is spotty, but as a distribution system, how cool is that?  

What could be more convenient and straightforward than sampling music in streaming mode, then if you want to buy a 16-bit or even 24-bit native version, there it is, ready to download in the background?   No need to go searching for what you want on a different site.  As music consumers become more aware of master quality sound, centralized universal format distribution is an approach whose time has come.

This kind of system holds great promise as a new frontier of music distribution for CD quality and studio master music.  It’s the best of all worlds in my mind and far superior to anything Apple iTunes or any other distribution scheme has ever dreamed of delivering.  It just might be the end of the overpriced iTunes download era.

We just don’t need such tortured approaches as Pono when all quality levels can be so easily served in all flavors across the Internet.  Every personal computer can play master quality through a 24-bit DAC.  Pono is a hardware-based, misguided musician's solution for a nonexistent problem that creates a new problem -- sequestering music files to artificially elevate prices.

The Grateful Dead sold 35 million albums without hardware-based copy protection.  They simply knew how to give fans what they craved.  It’s time to re-examine motives and methods in music distribution, to stop tolerating digital rights trolls who encourage artists to hold out for all they can get, and move on with the realities of capitalism in the world of music.  In a system of supply and demand, we need more volume of more enjoyable music and less irrational assumption of entitlement.  

Nothing sells music like greatness.  Artificial scarcity will never substitute for that.

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