It’s a Stream, Stream, Stream, Stream World

The numbers don’t lie: It’s high time for audiophiles to get onboard the stream train.

Has streaming saved the music industry? Depends on whom you ask. If we’re to believe certain vocal factions within the music business, we’re already officially entrenched in the “end of owning music” era. As reported in the mid-June edition of Rolling Stone, sales of CDs peaked at 712 million discs in 2001, while they plummeted to a record low 88.6 million in 2017 — and that figure is only going to continue to drop. In fact, CD sales have plunged an alarming 80 percent in the past decade alone. And as you’ve probably seen ‐ or even inadvertently experienced at, say, a car dealership while looking at new vehicles — a number of manufacturers like Ford, Toyota, and Tesla don’t even offer CD players as options anymore.

Vinyl sales have gone the other way, however, upticking from a mere 990,000 pieces in 2007 to 14.3 million in 2017 — with, naturally, the 50th anniversary 180-gram reissue of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band being the year’s biggest seller on wax. That’s no real surprise to a music-loving community such as ours that continues to embrace owning, collecting, and critically listening to physical products — namely, higher-grade LP reissues and box sets and Blu-ray and DVD releases that feature hi-res options and surround sound content. Sorry if I turned into Captain Obvious there for a moment, but still. . .

That said, we do have to reconcile just how we can consume digital music at the quality we rightly demand. Hard numbers continue to tell the tale. For example, downloading has also gone the route of, well, going down. The number of track downloads between 2011-13 averaged 1.3 billion, but that number shrunk considerably to just 555 million in 2017, following the pattern of a continual 5-year decline. And streaming? Well, streaming is the word. It’s the time, the place, the motion, and the way we are feeling. To wit: In 2013, song streams were at 118.1 billion, and then that number leapfrogged to a staggering 618 billion in 2017.

In 2013, song streams were at 118.1 billion, and then that number leapfrogged to a staggering 618 billion in 2017.

But does streaming also have the groove and the meaning? Let me cite a few more stats for the numbers-crunchers among us before I answer that semi-rhetorical thought. In an early June post based on research from Parks Associates, we reported that almost 40 percent of internet-connected U.S. households now have a streaming media player. In comparison, only 6 percent of households were streaming via a media player in 2010. Most of this is related to folks wanting video content from the likes of Netflix and Amazon, of course — but the desire runs deeper than that since, as noted earlier, we audiophiles must take a hard look at the quality level of both the music being made available and the related streaming playback system/device at hand if we’re to embrace this seemingly unstoppable music listening force.

How do the artists making the music we stream feel? Just about every day, I speak with musicians, artists, producers, and engineers who have opposing views on streaming, and it’s crystal-clear no one is taking any kind of neutral, Switzerland-like stance. Some artists take the “greater good” approach, feeling that streaming is akin to a millennial morphing of the function of radio, wherein their music is made available at a low or even no entry fee in the hopes of garnering new fans who will ultimately pay for concert tickets or some kind of physical product somewhere down the line. Others, however, remain incensed over the lack of cents on the dollar paradigm — i.e., the modern “art vs. commerce” argument equivalent. One up-and-coming 19-year-old vocalist/guitarist I recently spoke with, Judge Page of Broken Testimony, told me, “I get that everyone nowadays is on social media and are streaming their music, but to me, the best music came from the times where you got it on records and CDs. Everything just sounds better than it would on a streaming site. I just want to play my music in front of people, and I’ll give it away to them first; I don’t care.”

In comparison, when I interviewed Midge Ure, solo artist and singer/guitarist of Ultravox, he observed, “I’m suspicious of streaming — suspicious of the quality, suspicious of the payment structure. No, I don’t really like it, to be honest with you.”

Thing is, with all format shifts, there will always be resistance to change, especially within the audiophile community. But if there’s one thing we will come around to, it’s the equal marriage of convenience and quality. Of late, the streaming universe has been making great strides in providing higher-quality listening experiences, so the answer is simple: adapt or die.

true audio's picture

I currently stream tidal master files, but an alternative would be nice. so I took a look at Quobuz. If you want the best they have, get your credit card ready $349.00 up front ? If they want to compete with Tidal and others they need to make it affordable to get started. Sure most of us had a card to purchase with but bedamned if I'm going to make a car payment to stream their #%&. I thought HD Tracks was starting a streaming service ? Has anyone heard anything. I enjoy educating people on computer audio, but getting someone to spend a little money on a decent system is another story. If enough of us email Quobuz maybe things will change. HAPPY LISTENING AND LONG LIVE S&V !