The streams are flowing, though that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Streaming music services, now joined in the marketplace by Apple Music (from the people who brought you iEverything), are poised to become the most widespread way that consumers listen to the tunes they love. More than a half-dozen competing companies are vying for the attention and money of fans and casual listeners. The competitors include Apple Music (after acquiring and absorbing the Beats Music service), Spotify (the most entrenched and successful service, going by customer numbers), Rhapsody (the oldest of the top-tier subscription streaming services), Pandora (one of the pioneer companies in Internet radio), Tidal (the Scandinavian-developed service that was acquired by rapper/producer/entrepreneur Jay-Z), and more.
Each service varies in price, in international reach and, significantly, in the size and breadth of its music library. A few offer free versions or free trial periods, though the former come with commercial breaks (just like old-school radio). And the listener interface can be different from service to service, with straight-up digital radio stations, playlists, video libraries, and full-album play among the alternatives, depending on the company and the extent of the purchased subscription.
If you’re convenience-oriented, not too concerned with the greatest wide-spectrum sound achievable by audio technology, and are not enamored of tightly-controlled programming nor material possessions, the music stream is made to order. If, on the other hand, you’re among those who prefer the time-honored, tactile, collectible joys of compact discs (CDs, as we know them) and/or vinyl platters that provide users with mastery over a personal real-world library of music, this news will be less than pleasing or even relevant.
PRESERVING THE OLD-SCHOOL PLATFORMS
The Luddites and retro-fashion tribes are having their say in the matter. As vintage vinyl records rise in value and foster a growing market of audiophiles and collectors in pursuit of new pressings, there’s talk about the death of the CD — the digitally-coded advance that purportedly killed vinyl. Not so fast. Any prognostication about the impending obsolescence of the CD may also be premature. To their credit, these data discs are not reliant on an Internet connection to deliver the music encoded on them. If you need your music fix at home or in the car and have a player, you’ll get what you need with a CD.
Yes, CDs take up considerably more space than, say, a Wi-Fi signal. They have also been known to malfunction due to oxidation, particularly the earliest iterations that, additionally, provided a much smaller sonic spectrum than vinyl – though CD sound is now markedly superior to what you hear from the usual mp3s available for digital download. With all that in mind, one of the ever-present advantages of vinyl over CDs is the earlier format’s durability with proper care. Even a neutron bomb that knocks out all power and connectivity for miles around won’t stop someone from playing a 12-inch on a hand-cranked gramophone. And who doesn’t want a little melody with their apocalypse? But CDs of more recent manufacture, when treated and stored properly, should be more durable than the vestigial compact discs of the early ’90s. It’s entirely possible that a collectors’ market for CDs will grow, spurred by material unavailable in other formats — especially if the number of pressings decreases and predicted demise of the platform comes to pass.
Still, music streaming appears to be an inescapable and unstoppable juggernaut. To further the all-pervasive nature of at least one service, we have the Apple Watch that garnered considerable recent media coverage as a game-changer but, to date, has sold below expectations. In its debut models, the Apple Watch allows owners to control music on their iPhones (assuming that these people are completely in the Apple camp) or listen to playlists with Bluetooth-enabled headphones. Needless to say, that suggests a simpatico marriage between the Apple Music system and the Apple Watch that gives the iCorp a potential advantage over its streaming rivals.
FALLOUT & COMPENSATION
So who really wins in the Great Stream Wars of the 21st Century? Which service will dominate? It’s anybody’s guess. And what of the listeners? Are they so used to the quantifiably lesser sound quality of digital music, so beholden to the ease of accessing the streams, and so willing to cede control of their home/car/laptop music programming to algorithms that they will abandon their previous audio platforms for good? Looks that way.
As a former staffer on the music-oriented social-media site MOG that was retooled into a music-streaming site before it was acquired by the now-Apple-ized Beats Music, I have watched these developments with considerable interest. As a songwriting dilettante who still gets small royalty checks for a few songs I co-authored before the digital revolution, I have the tiniest financial stake in what’s happening — and, as was the case with artist and publisher payouts when mp3s were first marketed for download and Internet radio emerged, the extent of and access to royalties are an issue.
Joe and Jane Public aren’t necessarily going to be too concerned as to whether or not artists are getting fair pay for online play — even when the young and charismatic singer-songwriter-celeb Taylor Swift throws down with Apple on the topic. Yet just compensation for the creators is another aspect of this technology-driven sea of change in worldwide listening habits — one that directly impacts those who make the music that the audience embraces and one that could dry up the streams if not properly addressed.