Tuesday, 9 June 2015
MUSINGS: On Music Streaming, now that Apple's in the game...
So, the big news this week is Apple and the streaming audio announcement; Apple Music. Of course music streaming services have been around for years: Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, Google Play Music, XBOX Music, Rdio, KKBOX (Asia), etc... Take your pick. Oh, let's not forget the mother of all media streaming - YouTube! Then there's also the FLAC lossless audiophile "darling", Tidal.
As usual with Apple announcements, it seem like the word "revolutionary" gets used rather liberally (along with describing objects as having "magical" properties). According to Apple, this announcement is "revolutionary", just like MQA from Meridian is "revolutionary" I guess. Lots of revolutions going on these days :-).
Supposedly this new Apple Music service will be streaming 256kbps AAC (not verified by Apple yet) and as expected from the fringe, some folks still are up in arms over the use of lossy compression with streaming services. It's as if lossy compression is morally evil and the mere mention automatically taints the product as deserving to be treated with disdain. Well, I guess I just don't see/hear it that way (the times I actually stream music off the Internet).
Since I have not spoken of music streaming to any significant extent previously, I offer a few thoughts as one who enjoys music immensely and appreciates accurate music reproduction (but of course not buying into unsubstantiated audiophile myths).
1. Well mastered and encoded 256+kbps lossy audio sounds indistinguishable from lossless 16/44 for the vast majority of people. Despite vigorous protestations, this, folks, is true. On the Internet, people have all kinds of strong sentiments against lossy compression, but I have never found it difficult to demonstrate the quality of high bitrate lossy music when you're actually sitting with a reasonable person and enjoying some musical samples together. High bitrate lossy quality is certainly better than FM radio stations (the streaming "standard" for generations). I believe the small proportion of folks who thinks 256kbps AAC or 320kbps MP3 sounds significantly worse or obstructs their enjoyment of music compared to Red Book CD (16/44) are therefore mostly mistaken or have not taken the time to compare for themselves with modern encoding software.
2. Convenience is the main selling point. The convenience of having a deep selection at one's fingertips, the convenience of having it available in the car, and on the subway. The convenience of a playlist easily constructed and shared. I therefore expect that whatever service the consumer chooses will cater to that convenience. It should strive to "just work", be bug-free, fast, have no downtime, and be universally compatible with various hardware. Apple should be good at this and it's good to see Apple Music will support Android rivals; hopefully the app isn't subpar though when it shows up in the fall.
3. Streaming is about consumption. Not about archiving. If I were to pay $10 or $20 per month, I end up owning nothing. Nothing inherently wrong with this since many people rent rather than own a home for example. However, as a music fan who wants to "connect" with the artist, I have a place in my heart for owing something that the artist "made". Usually it's the actual physical medium itself like the LP or CD where I can hold the object, inspect the cover art, or hand the LP sleeve to my friend to enjoy. Maybe it's a T-shirt, box set, other memorabilia. It becomes part of my collection which I can take pride in and becomes an overt part of the real landscape of my home, my archive collected over a lifetime. I appreciate that the world is going virtual and perhaps for many good reasons (like environmental conservation), but there is a special place for owning something beyond ephemeral fluctuations of electrical impulses. It's an indication of commitment at some level I suppose. Millions of years of evolution and deep-seated psychological drives will not be so easily replaced for those with a "perfectionist" mindset. For me, even if I consume music by streaming, there will always be a desire to collect my favourites.
4. Practically speaking, 256kbps takes up about 1/3 the data rate of FLAC lossless compression. Thus, the streaming reliability will be more robust - less prone to drop outs especially with low powered mobile devices hopping between cell phone towers during peak hours. For the same amount of music consumed, data plan utilization will be much reduced for those with quotas. Maybe one day, mobile data speeds will be universally fast, with low latency, and there won't be lags during "peak hours". Until then, I'd rate disruption-free streaming that just works reliably for a good price very highly.
5. Speaking of price. It must be inexpensive. I'll go with Adam Smith and stick with the principle of supply and demand here. Digital technology allows perfect replication of the data, making supply of any given piece of musical data essentially infinite and demand for music is not. I trust most of us have busy lives, time is already at a premium, and we are distracted by all the other entertainment options out there from movies, to sports, to TV, to video games. Furthermore, there are millions of music groups or solo artists out there. And how many of those artists' albums/songs does each one of us own? How many of those would one actually self-identify as being a fan of and collect much of that band's artistic output? Looking at my own music library, I have albums from about 1200 artists/bands collected over >25 years of my life. In 2009, this article counted 5 million bands on MySpace. This means that my music collection is scratching only 0.024% of the potential number of bands out there. Consider too that this number of 5 million bands could be a very conservative estimate because recording technology has preserved so much music over the decades that one could spend a lifetime exploring and finding hidden musical treasures without ever caring about anything that was recorded in this millennium (I would not recommend this of course, just sayin'). Not only are the bands of today competing for market share with contemporaries, but everyone else who has every come before and laid down a recording. There's just a lot of music out there vying for our attention. To capture as much listening time as possible, the price has to remain inexpensive overall. And artists realize that this is highly competitive for each dollar earned so they better have a good idea of how the income filters down to them. I don't know what the best price structure should be, but my Netflix subscription costs about $10/month; and we can say with reasonable confidence that videos/movies generally cost more to produce, store, and distribute due to bandwidth demands.
Well, good luck to Apple and the streaming companies. I'm sure there's money to be made... But Apple might just see a shift of revenue from the iTunes download store to Apple Music with what amounts to just flattish revenue. Or if they gain market share, it could just be cannibalism of another streaming service rather than drawing any more money into the industry as a whole. Given the unpredictability of this model, I wouldn't even be surprised to see a surge in Spotify use since Apple does not offer an ad-supported tier after their free 3-month trial expires as people get used to the streaming model but refuse to pay.
Personally, I must admit that I listen to free Spotify when I'm on the computer doing other stuff like writing this blog. The other time is when I'm exercising. Whereas in years past, I may have been listening to my iPod or FM radio, these days it's convenient to use the cell phone. For now, I really feel no need to subscribe to any of these other services since Spotify works well on my phone and desktop, plus better fidelity just isn't needed in these situations. The occasional ad is no more bothersome than the local radio station. I have plenty of CDs, LPs, SACDs, DVD-As, high-res downloads mostly ripped to the music server already for those times I wish to "seriously" listen.
Having said this, I think there might come a time when something like the Apple "Family Plan" for $15/month could be good. This pricing tier seems novel and very economical for the ability to stream to up to a family of 6. When my kids become teenagers in a few years and want to listen to more of the new music of their generation, I'm thinking this could be worth it. [I see Spotify is aiming to do the same; competition is good.]
To close off, I was wondering if a reason some people might feel that streaming music sounds worse than a bit-perfect CD rip could be because of volume normalization. Normalization is a good thing so you don't have to change volume with each song off different albums on your playlist - convenience first. (Don't blame poor cables or jitter from the miles and miles the data traversed!)
Does anyone know if Tidal is doing some kind of normalization when streaming? Can it be turned off? Does this affect audio quality? I have not seen this discussed...
(Remember to consider doing the ongoing "Digital Filters Test"!)