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The Absolute Sound
Issue 252   April 2015
The Streaming Juggernaut: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Editorial By Andrew Quint


The Absolute Sound Issue 252 April 2015  Take "Nikita," an Elton John song I'm fond of: Released on his 1985 Ice on Fire album, it's nicely played (David Patton on fretless bass, in particular), fairly well-recorded (in an early digital sort of way), and charted quite impressively around the world. I had the song on vinyl, but wanted a digital file so I went to Tidal, the CD-quality streaming service with 25,000,000 tracks that launched stateside last fall. "Nikita" wasn't hard to find, and the audio quality was good. I also noticed that listed below Elton's "Nikita" were nearly 50 other versions of the song. Seized by curiosity, I started sampling a range of them—from karaoke, instrumental (some featuring panpipes), and orchestral, to versions for babies—plus several with lead vocalists for whom English was clearly not a first language. All told, these cover versions lacked imagination: Everyone was played in the same key and at pretty much the same tempo as the original, with the same rhythm guitar lick, and the closest approximation to Patton's inspired bass line that the poor session musician could muster. It was pretty funny, but also strange: Why would you want a lame imitation when the original was easily available?

While I was on the Tidal site, I took a look at the availability of classical music, a genre I take more seriously. My favorite composer is Wagner, and there are plenty of legendary performances of his most influential work, Tristan und Isolde, that I haven't heard. I keyed the title in, and more than forty recordings of the complete opera materialized, including all of the most highly regarded ones—Böhm, Karajan, Furtwängler, Kleiber, and many others dating back to the 1930s. And these were just recordings of the entire four-hour drama. If I wanted to hear just the Prelude to Act 1 or the famous "Liebestod" conclusion, I had dozens of additional choices.

Wow. This is great, I thought. Or was it? The number of performances was so huge that the potential for a feeding frenzy seemed a real danger. Was this unbelievable bounty something that could undermine truly meaningful connections to music, whatever the genre? Would one get impatient and antsy, jumping from track to track in a new ADHD variant of listening, never giving an artist or composer a fair chance to make his or her musical argument?

Knowing that better-than-CD-quality streaming is certainly coming, I decided to check in with my friend David Chesky. A composer, performer, and record label owner, he also sells HDtracks downloads quite successfully, and would stand to lose a lot if people decided to stream high-resolution music rather than purchase his digital files. Speaking about streaming's impact on our relationship to recordings, Chesky says, "First of all, it devalues music; it totally devalues it. If everybody has everything, it doesn't mean anything. It's like a buffet. It's like the restaurant down the street saying, ‘Pay me $30 a month and you can have breakfast, lunch, and dinner—all you can eat.'"

We've all heard that streaming isn't good for musicians—for most of them, at any rate. On the informationisbeautiful.net website are some fascinating calculations: If you're a musician aiming to make the U.S. minimum wage of $1160 a month, how much would you need to sell within various channels of music distribution?

If you hawk self-pressed CDs at a gig for $9.99 each, say, you'll need to sell 143 of them per month. If your record label is selling that CD at retail stores or online you'll need to sell 1161 copies a month (assuming you have a good label deal). An album download on iTunes? 1229 at $9.99. But if a buyer only purchases one song at $0.99, you'll need to sell 12,399 downloads. With streaming, it really gets tough to pay the bills. If Rhapsody is distributing your music, you'll need 849,817 plays per month. With Spotify, where the artist reportedly gets $0.00029 per play, you'll need 4,053,110 a month. Ed Sheeran, Spotify's most streamed artist for 2014 (with 860 million plays), does quite OK, but if you're trying to make ends meet selling covers of Elton John songs played on steel drums, well... good luck with that.

As the business model is structured now, streaming is not good for most musicians. Perhaps it's also not good for the most voracious music consumers. Although the prospect of being able to hear whatever we want anytime is tempting, it may ultimately dull our taste buds when it comes to meaningful listening experiences. I keep thinking about Chesky's all-you-can-eat analogy: We'll get lazy, ugly, and fat.


— Andrew Quinta.


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