Ode to Streaming

by Robert Cowlin

Today my Tidal subscription renewed for the first time, marking one month since I joined the CD quality streaming service. In that month I’ve come to understand how streaming can work for the audiophile who might be sceptical of such services, what with them contributing to the redundancy of physical music and lack of provenance regarding mastering of catalogue titles. By approaching streaming from a learning perspective – not necessarily of ‘try before you buy’ but more a position of open musical exploration – it becomes very easy for streaming to complement one’s curation of an owned music collection as the connected audiophile uses the latest developments in content access to expand their musical outlook.

I first discovered streaming when Spotify was launched in the UK in late 2008/early 2009. I was a university student living in halls, and it seemed like a useful way to access music that I didn’t have with me in my small accommodation. Unfortunately, what with it being very much a fledgling service at the time and not yet having found its feet in the musical landscape, I quickly became frustrated with its patchy availability of albums I was interested in and, when they introduced the subscription fees, couldn’t justify the expense of streaming music that I already owned in higher quality (i.e. on CD). The constant adverts didn’t help either. Consequently, whilst the rest of my peers kept up with streaming, it became useless to me as I slowly started ripping my CD collection to Apple Lossless and then of course got into vinyl and latterly hi-fi. Thankfully my time in the small student accommodation didn’t last for too long!

Fast-forward eight years and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) is reporting that “streaming has emerged as the digital sector’s main driver of growth. As download revenues have declined (down 10.5 per cent in 2015), streaming – helped by the spread of smartphones, increased availability of high-quality subscription services and connected fans migrating into licensed music – has grown to 19 per cent of global industry revenues, up from 14 per cent in 2014” [Global Music Report: State of the Industry Overview 2016, IFPI]. The IFPI’s 2016 overview reveals that digital music sales represent 45% of global revenues, with streaming revenues accounting for 43% of digital sales (N.B. in this use of the word, digital does not include sales of physical music that contain digital audio, such as CD). In a section of the report titled, “Music Streaming Goes Mainstream”,  Michael Nash, UMG’s executive president of digital strategy, makes a crucial assertion that reflects my newfound experience with Tidal: “With the initial move to digital [music files], people took their physical collections and transferred them to digital, adding a few bespoke digital purchases so a lot of product concepts remained unchanged … But the move from downloading to streaming means consumers have access to millions of tracks. This means everything we are doing now around establishing artist brands, driving preference and marketing, is different”. This notion of “product concepts” is very relevant to the way in which I’ve been interacting with my streaming subscription this past month. Rather than using streaming to play all the albums I already love, I’ve been using it as a means of musical discovery. Now that streaming is so mainstream, any album worth its salt is released on streaming platforms either on release day or sometimes earlier. With great new music being released every week, one can easily use a streaming service as a means of hearing the latest releases that one is interested in and, perhaps more importantly, the latest developments in music that one might not otherwise have known about or been able to hear with the traditional pay-per-album model.

If you ask the average audiophile (…stay with me) what they think of streaming, they will invariably say something like: “The Beatles/Neil Young/The Rolling Stones/etc isn’t on streaming”. The idea, to them, is that streaming would constitute a music fan’s entire experience of recorded music, past present and future. Now, I’m aware that, for the average Millennial, streaming probably does constitute their entire experience of recorded music and to them the waffle that is this article will seem terribly outdated and its conclusions patently obvious, but we’re in the audiophile section so I’m going to continue writing with my audiophile hat on (it’s perfectly adapted to the curvature of my head to allow for a pinpoint sound-stage), and that means we’re talking about people that consider themselves music fans (and therefore engage with physical music products, go to concerts, and possibly have a hi-fi) and those who go beyond that into the realm of audiophilia. What I’ve come to appreciate, as a music fan, is that streaming isn’t really about replacing one’s whole music collection with a subscription, it’s about augmenting the collection and – most importantly – expanding one’s musical education through the thing it does better than anything else: instant musical access.

This is where Tidal steps in. Tidal’s “Hi-Fi” subscription service differentiates itself from the other major streaming platforms by offering lossless CD quality (FLAC, 16-bit/44.1 kHz) streams to its subscribers for £19.99/€19.99/$19.99 per month. By moving away from the free ad-supported streaming services and upgrading to an ad-less higher quality experience in the form of Tidal Hi-Fi (Spotify Premium is the more popular example but doesn’t offer lossless quality), it becomes very easy to see how one could implement the aforementioned “product concept” idea and incorporate a streaming service into one’s musical life. With a lossless streaming subscription, the tech-savvy connected audiophile can integrate it seamlessly with their physical music collection and change at will between CD quality streams, real CDs, and whichever other formats constitute their collection. This is how one can utilise streaming to its fullest potential: want to hear the 2016 shortlist for the Mercury Prize, it’s all there; enjoying the bass playing on that jazz record but don’t own any records by the bassist, stream that musician and discover new gems; want to hear The Gouster but can’t afford the box-set it’s limited to, it’s right there on the streaming services as well.

As mentioned earlier, this method of interacting with music is widespread amongst millions of people and as usual we audiophiles are lagging behind (or perhaps the audio companies and magazines are simply resistant to promoting real advances in our hobby), but it’s something that I’ve only just come to appreciate through my first month as a paid up member of Tidal. Of course, this approach requires one to actually want to seek out new music. It also requires a level of computer-based understanding if one wants to integrate the service with the rest of one’s hi-fi (I stream Tidal lossless across my home network to my DAC via my Android devices using the BubbleUPnP app), but the hour or so spent getting it set-up correctly (i.e. ensuring that it is actually sending a lossless stream) is more than worth it simply for the expanse that it has added to my music collection. I’m now in a position whereby, for catalogue titles, I can determine the best version available and buy it on any format that I desire; whilst, for new titles, I can stream them in CD quality and then decide if it’s something I want to buy (say, if the mastering is excellent). Readers will be aware of my opposition to loud styles of audio mastering, this is all well and good but it poses the risk of easily ignoring great swathes of modern recordings simply because they aren’t finished to a high standard. This approach isn’t acceptable to someone who considers themselves a music fan. Consequently, a premium streaming subscription enables me to hear as much music as I want (and not feel too guilty about royalties), but still vote with my wallet on titles that deserve a place in my physical music collection. With space at an all time premium, this seems like a sensible approach.