The streaming conundrum


Some years ago, during the Napster era, I heard of a Russian web site—AllOfMP3—that had millions of music tracks available for download. It had tracks available that no other music site had: the complete Beatles discography, for example, which the surviving band members had steadfastly refused to allow on legal download sites, such as iTunes.

At the time, I had a subscription to eMusic, which allowed unlimited downloads for a monthly fee, which, if I recall correctly, was $7.99 a month. Once you downloaded those tracks, they were yours to keep. And eMusic tracks had no embedded digital right management (DRM) software—like iTunes did—to prevent you from sharing the songs.

The problem with eMusic was it had almost no mainstream music. No Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin. No Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, or Aretha. No Bob Dylan, U2, or Santana. You get the picture. And the quality of the tracks, which were MP3, was just ok—ripped at 128 Mbps.

AllOfMP3, however, offered a much wider selection of MP3 tracks, ripped at an impressive 384 Mbps. And the site claimed that it was completely legal, because Russian copyright laws allowed it.

Even though I had a bit of an uneasy feeling about it, I joined AllOfMP3 for a few months and downloaded a bunch of great tracks, all of which I still have in my library today. Eventually, with enough pressure from the RIAA, the Russian government closed down the site.

Disrupting the music industry

That era was really a time of disruption and change in the music industry. Illegal downloading from Napster, and other peer to peer sites, continued

The RIAA sued a handful of people accused of illegal music sharing, but the genie was out of the bottle.

There was an enormous appetite for music, and the machinations of the recording industry and its shills at the RIAA probably did more to encourage illegal downloading and sharing than they would care to admit.

Apple came along with a technological solution in iTunes that helped to stem the tide. A great many consumers showed they were willing to pay for songs if they were reasonably priced and the selection was good.

The iTunes solution

At the insistence of the recording industry, the tracks from iTunes were ladened with DRM, which made the songs somewhat difficult to share, but the solution nonetheless worked, and consumers bought it.

ipodAlong with boatloads of iPods, which, despite Apple’s purported love of music, was the company’s first priority.

Eventually, Apple was able to drop the DRM from its library and, in the process, improve the sound quality by using a higher bit rate (256 Mbps), a better codec—AAC—and superior MPEG-4 compression.

Apple received a lot of credit for—and a lot of criticism of—iTunes. Depending on whom you listened to, Apple either saved or destroyed the music business. It undoubtedly radically changed the industry, although, in fairness, the industry was going to change with or without Apple.

Music industry evolution

While the sale of single tracks rose significantly, full album sales declined. CD sales dropped dramatically, and vinyl records became almost non-existent.

vinyl-recordsMusicians and music collectors alike lamented the loss of the album, and the ancillary trappings like hip liner notes and groovy cover art.

Since then, the music industry has continued to evolve.

The sale of downloaded tracks has declined, and the streaming industry has emerged and is gaining critical mass. Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, and a few others are growing in popularity.

Even Apple has joined in with Apple Music, which may end up being the 800-pound gorilla of music streaming.

We wrote about Apple Music some weeks ago in this space. The service offers a few tricks that the other streaming players don’t have, including music curation by real humans. Reportedly, Apple Music employs over 300 music editors whose job is to help hone the For You section designed to provide listeners with new music they’re more likely to enjoy.

Fearing for music

We wrote, and still believe, that Apple Music is all about music discovery. Apple, we think, would be happy—and consider Apple Music a success—if the service revives the whole experience of music discovery and listening.

Of course, if Apple can sell more iPhones, iPads, and Macs in the process, so much the better for the company.capitol_records

At the same time, though, we fear for the music industry. The intrinsic value of music has declined. Making a living as a musician is harder and requires an almost relentless schedule of touring and live performances.

And, we fear, some company in Russia, or China, or elsewhere is vacuuming up all the music streams and stealing the digital tracks with some nefarious business plan in mind.

Which will only serve to further erode the value of music. Having grown up in the 1960s and 1970s, when some truly great music was being made, this makes me sad.

I continue to enjoy Apple Music and discover new songs and new artists almost every day. I think I’ll continue my subscription after the three-month trial is over. At a monthly price ($9.99) that is about the cost of one CD, it’s worth it to me both for my own enjoyment and—perhaps against logic—to support the value of music.

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