Let rolling streams their gladness show

In the 1980s, the CD nearly pushed the LP to extinction. Nearly. For all the claims of "Perfect Sound Forever," the main thing offered by the CD was convenience.

Then, in the mid-1990s, the MP3 and the Internet made it easy to extract and distribute the information encoded on a CD. Secret websites raced to be the first to distribute free MP3s of new recordings, sometimes even before they were released. This went on for years, undermining record-company profits, before Napster came along and gave the record industry a high-value lawsuit target: no more suing widows and small children.

In 2001, Napster was shut down. A few years later, iTunes legitimized (and monetized) marginal-quality music downloads. By that time, the record industry was in free-fall.

Rhapsody—the world's first music streaming service—started up around the time Napster was shut down, but streaming didn't get a foothold until several years later, and when it did, it was mostly free and ad-supported, and the quality was—of course—low. Sales of physical media kept falling—except for vinyl LPs, which at first held steady and then started rising. But that's a story for another day.

Technology has always driven change, but the mass market, with an assist from corporate beancounters, dictates key decisions, and few of those decisions went our way . . .

. . . until, in 2008, the Chesky brothers started HDtracks and music downloads went high-rez. Over the next decade, more high-rez download sites came online, and the catalog grew, both for high-rez and CD-rez. Often the high-rez versions were the best, most authentic versions of that music available—relatively "flat" digital masters, the as-yet-untainted source of the dynamically compressed recordings we'd grown used to on CD. (It's not always the resolution that makes high-rez downloads superior.) Downloads of older recordings, often, were near-transparent digital transfers from the original analog tapes—the best digital versions available. Suddenly we had access to record companies' crown jewels, often for the price of a compact disc. They're still out there, often discounted. Grab 'em while you can.

More recently still, streaming went high-rez. First (in the US) came Tidal, offering MQA (footnote 1). Qobuz crossed the Atlantic, and then Amazon entered the fray. The result: For 50 cents a day, you can have access to a vast library of recordings in the best available quality.

What is that noise I hear? Is that the sound of audiophiles—complaining about high-resolution streaming?

Let's consider the most common objections.

Streaming lacks the tactile qualities of vinyl: It's true. I enjoy handling my records—the cleaning, the brushing, the liner notes. Streaming has none of that. It can nonetheless be satisfying. In my library, with the aid of Roon, downloads, ripped CDs, and music streamed from Tidal and Qobuz mesh seamlessly, presented in an information-rich (metadata-rich) context. (Other server software offers a similar experience, but Roon is the best I've encountered—not that there isn't room for improvement.) You get to keep your records, and you can listen to them whenever you want to. Or just hold them—that's fine, too.

The sound of streaming isn't as good as downloads or physical media: If you're a vinylphile, you're bound to think your vinyl sounds best. If you're a high-rez fan, you may think downloads served up from your server sound better than the same music does when streamed. And yet, for the cost of a single vinyl reissue or a 24/192 download from one of the more expensive download sites, you can access a vast library of music in the best available digital quality—for two months.

Streaming services don't pay musicians enough: Estimates place royalties (earned by musicians) at a fraction of a penny per stream. But if you're worried about musicians making money, Taylor Swift earned $185 million last year. Over the decade that just ended, U2 grossed more than $1 billion, from touring alone. The musicians who have always made money—those with large followings and major-label deals—still earn plenty. The rest have always struggled.

Is it harder now than it used to be, or easier? The contemporary model seems more musician-friendly: The technology that almost killed the record industry—and that makes streaming possible—also, obviously, makes music distribution easier. Today, a musician can make a record cheap, promote it online, and sell it through BandCamp, SoundCloud, and so on, all without major-label backing—and they get to keep a bigger share.

If you're worried about record companies—does anyone worry about record companies?—their 2018 revenues were up 9.7% over 2017, giving them their best year since 2005. All of that increase—and then some, since revenues from downloads and physical media were down—is streaming revenue, which rose by an astonishing 32.9% in 2018 to reach 47% of global recorded-music revenues. 2019 numbers aren't available as I write this, but it seems certain that streaming constituted more than half of global recorded-music revenues in 2019.

If you care about musician incomes, the best thing you can do is subscribe to a music streaming service, or more than one, and listen. The logic is air-tight: Streaming is taking over music distribution—whether we want it to or not—and the more money streaming services make, the more money musicians make from streaming.

High-rez music streaming is one of the finest developments in the history of hi-fi. There are no serious downsides. Embrace it.—Jim Austin

Footnote 1: Some question—passionately—whether MQA should be called high-rez. I've written plenty on that topic, and I'm not interested in revisiting it.

Anton's picture

I still buy CDs and vinyl...I like the buy in: pay once.

I am trying to think of a good analogy for this transition to streaming, but can't come up with a good business example.

Video and video streaming as the model doesn't really work because I like to play music more than once or twice. (I never related to owning 'movies.')

This is a tough thing, letting go of "music ownership."

I'm not being cruel about streaming, just commenting on the change of mindset.

tonykaz's picture

We've always been renters, we never took it with us, ( except Pharaohs )

It's an expensive burden to possess, protect, store, clean, organize & maintain, inherit, etc. I have empathy for those lads with 10,000+ 33.3 lifetime collection that will probably never be played again ( if ever ). ( the guys with Boats have it far worse )

I've just abandoned/disposed of 90% of my possessions, it's been a liberating freedom yet I have my largest ever record collection in my shirt pocket.

Streaming, SD Cards, Electric Cars, Solar, Class D here we come.

Tony leaving Nevada

misterc59's picture

Anton, I too like the tactile and sight of vinyl. But also blu-ray movies. For me, the quality of a blu-ray disc, be it 1080 or 4k (8k to come) is still ahead of streaming. I'm sure this will change in the not too distant future.
Sure streaming is more "convenient", but for those of us (and I do have some millennial friends) who prefer the physical attraction of various media and accompanying packaging, streaming has a way to go to meet these criteria if it ever will.


Jack L's picture

....the quality of a blu-ray disc, be it 1080 or 4k (8k to come) is still ahead of streaming." quoted mister59.

YES! I fully agree as I am using my Sony WiFi Blu-ray player playing my favourite classical music performances on both CD, DVD & Blu-ray video/audio discs. There are so many Blu-ray HD music video discs available in the marketplace on Sony Music, EuroArts, etc etc.

Excellent HD vision on my 4K UHD smart TV & excellent sound hooked up directly to my stereo rig.

I don't need to subscribe to any HD streaming providers regularly as I am happy with what I am enjoying this way.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture

....... the liner notes." quoted Jim Austin.

"streaming doesn't really work because I like to play music more than once or twice." quoted Anton.

Well, I don't enjoy scrubbing, cleaning the LP plus checking up the stylus free from debris before playing. But no choice, I have to repeatedly doing so so that I can enjoy good music, music closest to live. So music quality vs convenience.

Also I always like playing the music I love repeatedly whatever I feel like.

That said, I still stream music performances CONVENIENTLY from YouTube for tons of music I may have missed, knowing very well the sound quality is only so so. It is convenience vs sound quality!

Digital is always digital - 10101010... can never get back the original sine waveform of the original music. This is physics.

Streaming todate, IMO, still cannot touch the music quality via hard wiring irrespective how Hi-REz & lossless being claimed. Again, convenience vs sound quality.

Maybe I am an old schooler as I consider my digital media: CD, DVD-audio, Blu-Ray HiFi Pure Audio discs as supplementary to my vinyl.
Sound quality vs convenience.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If you like streaming music, you may not need anything more than $300 Meridian Explorer2 or, $300 AQ DragonFly Cobalt ....... Both have 'short minimum phase' filters and both should sound good :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

Damit, I'm thrilled with 21st Century Audio & 21st Century Audio amplification & transducers. Phew. ( not so thrilled with the working man's income being frozen back in 1980 -- making purchasing all the more challenging )


Schiit is affordable/dam-good gear from a dam good outfit.


Steve G discovered and reported from Soundsmith, showcasing a young engineer willing to reveal wonderful secrets about stylus jitter and a few other brilliances. Noisy 33.3 systems are Phono cartridge problems, not Table/Arm/Cleaning issues. Did someone already report on this??? I musta been sleeping or somehow anesthetized.

Steve G's 33.3 reporting seems the best in the business, almost makes me wanna play records. ( of course Steve G. is not other worldly/Planetary, his feet are firmly planted on "everyman's soil"

Tony leaving Las Vegas

Bogolu Haranath's picture

My prediction ..... By 2030, sales of all types of physical discs in audio would be less than 10% ....... More than 90% of all audio consumption is gonna be streaming and downloads ........ Get used to it folks :-) .......

bigasherm's picture

High Resolution streaming has changed the way that I listen to music. I have ripped all of my CD's to disk and I still listen to them. Many of my favorites are in my owned collection.

Since I started using streaming high rez music from Tidal, the only music that I have purchased has been been music that is not available on Tidal or Qobuz, with the exception of some CD's that I have purchased at concerts. All of that music gets ripped or downloaded to my NAS drive.

What has revolutionized music listening for me is the ability to check out and discover a lot of different music without having to spend 10 to 24 dollars for an album that I might not like. With streaming, i can "rediscover" something that I listened to years ago and listen to the album once or twice and then be done with. I have also discovered several albums that have become favorites by just trying out something that I discovered in an internet article or album review.

I have sold all of my LP's and my CD's are sitting in boxes in the basement. My main listening room is no longer cluttered and I can listen my music easily in all of the main rooms in my house. I support musicians by going to live concerts and streaming their music. I'll never go back to LP's and CD's.

johnny p.'s picture

Streaming does not sound as good as a local/dedicated drive. We don't know the provenance of a recording with streaming. There are many ways to discover music (with ad-supported tuners).

I didn't think audiophiles would fall for the streaming thing. But with audio writers pushing it since 2015, I was wrong...

Anton's picture

It's the "unfolding" of the MQA that does it.

Maybe that, and a proper cable "loom."

I just enjoy our strange malapropisms, I have nothing against MQA trying to help improve low rez digital.

johnny p.'s picture

..almost no-one says MQA sounds better than dedicated CD...

Bogolu Haranath's picture

MQA sounds as good as live music ........ 'Is it live or is it MQA'? :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Having one wife is monotony (monogamy) :-) ........

jeffhenning's picture

I am a bit of a collector and some of my favorite stuff is not on any streaming service.

That being said, we’re I 16 rather than 60, I’d be beating up streaming like it was a cantankerous, rented mule. In fact, I most likely will.

Also, streaming is a great way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Then you only buy what you truly like.

Where I digress from you editorial is your ignorance of what happens to musicians under most contracts now. They, for anyone, but the most successful artists, are a giant money grab where the record company drains from all of their revenue streams. And I mean all of them. That’s why they are termed “360 contracts”. They take from every angle.

Also, the only way you make big (or any) money now is by performing live. Record companies hardly pay most artists.

It is now harder than ever to make a living as musician... most especially when you’re trying get your start.

supamark's picture

They've been getting screwed by the labels for, well, ever. Here's a piece from 1993 written by Steve Albini (musician - Big Black, Shellac, et.al.; and producer - Nirvana's "In Utero" probably best known production) about how the labels worked *before* the internet (hint, it's always been horrible and it may actually be better now - don't need a label to get exposure).


and a newer piece about how things are maybe better for small time musicians now than it was.


audx's picture

I don't buy the argument that streaming pays artists more than physical media.

If I understand it correctly, an artist/band is going to get a dollar or more for every single physical media purchase. They'll be lucky to get a penny per stream.

It went from bad to worse as artists were complaining about physical media royalties and I would suggest that they're even more unhappy with streaming royalties.

PAR's picture

In the physical media world an artist would sell, maybe 1,000 to 1,000,000 copies . And, using your numbers earn a $1 per.
In the streaming world successful artists currently can get billions of streams. Billions. Pay them $1 per and Beyonce alone would earn more than the total annual GDP of a small to medium sized country.

Yes, unsuccessful artists with few streams earn little. But they didn't sell many records either, even at a $1 royalty.

audx's picture

Remember when stores carried CDs and then before that vinyl?

Or to put it another way all the stores that are carrying vinyl but as far as I can tell never sell it. I've never seen anyone buy vinyl at a Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, or Target. But artists will get paid regardless.

But before all that, there were thousands of stores and 20-50k not such a difficult number. As stores aren't carrying physical media in the numbers they once did, then all that revenue has vanished.

barrows's picture

Jim, I do not think this is true:

"If you care about musician incomes, the best thing you can do is subscribe to a music streaming service, or more than one, and listen. The logic is air-tight: Streaming is taking over music distribution—whether we want it to or not—and the more money streaming services make, the more money musicians make from streaming."

My GF is a musician, we recently found her music available at amazon music, she has no contract with them and is quite unsure how it got there. She also sells music directly from her own website, both downloads and CDs. I would suggest that if one is looking to support musicians, go directly to the source and purchase music directly through the musicians own website.
After the spotify debacle, one would think that streaming services would have their acts together, but apparently this is not so. Presently it seems that the streaming service are still operating in a wild wild west fashion, and I am not sure at all if musicians are getting appropriately compensated; buying direct at least insures the musician is getting the bulk of the profit.

supamark's picture

Is your GF signed to a record label of some sort, even if just a distribution deal? If so, that's how it ended up on Amazon music. If not, looks like lawsuit time (good luck, she'll likely need it). If she owns her publishing, check to see if getting royalties for both songwriting and performance). streaming works like radio, but with a lower royalty rate but much longer reach.

A surprising number of records I recorded 25 to 30 years ago are available to stream, like I didn't think anyone would care about most of them that long after.

Playing live for money is probably the best way for a musician to get paid, and can sell merch/records at the show (best place to buy physical media from a musician too, they get a better cut than from retail). Since record labels primarily exist to extract money from musicians, it's best to avoid them if possible.

jimtavegia's picture

The rest of this post went out to cyberspace...I guess. Oh well.

I like physical media and with limited time to listen I will not waste it on compressed formats and the best that Spotify can offer is 320kbps. Not a winner in my mind.

I like and use HD tracks and BlueCoast, but have not done a DSD USB dac yet. All my computers have a Focusrite scarlette 2I2 2nd gen on them that can do up to 24/192. I can hear the diff up to 2496, but my old ears have a hard time with 24/192 when recorded from my Tascam DR-680 MK2 SDHC card recorder. I don't know it there are jitter issues at that rate with either or both of the Tascam or the Focusrite units. I love SACD and can hear the improvement of that over CD or LP, if properly mastered. That can be said of all the formats.

At about $150 for the Focusrite's it is hard to complain about them when they are I/O devices for so little money. The Tascam products I have liked for years starting with their 2496 units of DR-2D's, the to the DR-40's. All have been excellent and I have a pair of each. I bought the 6 track DR-680 to be able to record 6 tracks at a time at 2496 and stereo at up to 24/192 to dabble with that rate. I lost a concert recording years back when recording with computers and that pushed me out of computer recording and just using the stand alone Tascam's and have never had an issue. Easy to dump files into my Sony Sound Forge for mastering and CD Architect for CD burning. I can burn 2496 files onto DVDs with Cirlinca software as DVD-Vs or DVD-As.

Growing up FM was king and way to hear all the latest hits, and it was fun collecting and playing 45's, but now at 72 I don't seem to have time to just listen to new music as I enjoy recording others, and singing and playing and composing myself. That is where I am right now. When my singing and playing days are over, I will become more of a listener and have to get a DSD dac and maybe MQA...who knows.

ok's picture

..I really love all things audiophile since I was a kid, but I have increasingly moved from plastic media (cassettes, vinyl, cds) to computer audio for the convenience and the fun of it. Nowadays I find myself listening mostly to phone/cans/spotify/flac configurations (portable dac included but not required) 1/20 the price of my precious room stereo and not remotely inferior soundwise. In retrospect I'm unable to see what all the big money "realistic reproduction" fuss is about anymore.

MFK's picture

"Embrace it." You nailed it Mr. Austin. Writing from Canada and waiting for Qobuz to appear here. However, I subscribe to Deezer Hi-Fi and it has transformed the way I listen to music. I listen to music every day and weeks can go by without dipping into a large collection of vinyl/CDs. Deezer's huge catalogue allows for exploring new releases and discovering unheard gems from the past. As for the sound quality, it's an easy 95% as good as a CD in the context of a two channel system worth about 20k. High quality streaming is a dream come true. Fellow music lovers, if you haven't checked it out you are missing out. In Deezer's case all for 19.95 CDN pesos a month!

wgb113's picture

...it's why I have a 300 album backlog of vinyl to listen to.

I clean both used and new and like to record them the first time I play them so that I can listen to them off of my iPhone or stream them throughout the house.

But man does it slow down the process!

I don't have a backlog in my Tidal collection...I listen to it at the touch of an icon via Roon anywhere in the house.

I get the benefits of each which is why I don't pick one over the other.

NeilS's picture

I have a fairly large music collection, and invested months ripping all my CDs to FLAC, after which I disconnected my CD player from my system more than five years ago. I've tried but don't currently subscribe to any streaming service. Because I'm a collector and like to tag and curate my own stuff, I buy downloads and CDs (mostly downloads).

I still buy CDs 1) to get specific CD versions of subsequently remastered material (I often find the remasters available on streaming/downloads/CDs less enjoyable or unlistenable due to the loudness wars); 2) because the material isn't on streaming or available as a download (which I've found for a lot of older jazz and classical music); or 3) for contemporary releases, I've found through comparison shopping that the CD version can sometimes be significantly less expensive than the corresponding 16/44.1 kHz download.

Nothing at all against streaming, but it just doesn't fit my needs and circumstances.

SpinMark3313's picture

Though this can certainly be done with streaming, I find that when I invest in physical media I am much more inclined to go deeper with the composition / performance / recording than I would otherwise. Like having a Monet in my home versus seeing it on occasion at the museum, I am more likely to soak in and benefit from all the richness and detail.
There's just too much temptation for me with streaming to bounce around all the time - my ADD tendencies and FOMO I suppose. One great advantage in the internet age of course is the ability to preview before buying. Then, if / when a disc or LP becomes non-essential for me, a thriving second hand / trade-in market is a great benefit. I now, in fact, limit myself to spending just trade-in credit on thrice annual Amoeba Records SF runs with a group of buddies. Forces me to be a little more aggressive at thinning the herd if I really want to raid the bins with any depth (and I do buy new stuff as well as old and second-hand the rest of the year).
In the end, not a fan of Jim's exhortation, but I appreciate his position. I appreciate all the more the fact that there truly is something for everyone in the home HiFi world - even cassettes and reel to reels!

Joe Whip's picture

There is no doubt that streaming, especially Qobuz, can sound fantastic. However, unless you are someone like Taylor Swift, the artists really make little from streaming. My son is a singer, songwriter, keyboardist and I helped as a retired lawyer, negotiate his digital distribution deal. Streaming plays are paltry which is why I prefer to buy directly from the artist if possible. I would rather my money get to the artists, not the record companies. Support the musicians you like by seeing them live and buy from them directly if possible.

tresaino's picture

Mr. Austin, I love LPs and reluctantly accepted CDs but I agree with your observations about streaming. I also concur that we audiophiles and music lovers should embrace it. However, the way you summarize the pay for musicians is superficial and not convincing.

You mention Taylor Swift and U2 as examples for successful musicians in the new streaming world. I checked Spotify streaming numbers, Taylor Swift’s song ‘You need to calm down’ was streamed 344 million times on Spotify by the end of February. Wow!

However, I fail to follow you when you state that ‘the rest have always struggled’. How do you define ‘the rest’? Some ‘rest’ musicians, sound engineers, music producers and smaller record labels released musical marvels during the pre-streaming decades. Some struggled more, others less, however many could still earn a decent living, not only with concerts but also with LP and CD sales.

A music business insiders told me that Spotify pays approximately 1000 dollars for 250.000 streams for one song. This amount of money needs to be shared by musicians, producers and sound engineers. I don’t know how much all these people earned with LP and CD sales during the old days, but earnings for streamings appear to be peanuts in comparison. Unless you are streamed dozens of millions of times. Try that with jazz, classical or world music.

I have no doubt that, compared to the old days, ‘the rest’ musicians, sound engineers, music producers and smaller record labels struggle much more in today’s streaming world. The streaming business model is still evolving but it must be corrected. Bandcamp and Soundcloud are indeed great for the ‘rest’ camp, but so should streaming be.

Finally, please check your own LP and CD collection and assess what percentage are mainstream artists and what percentage you would describe as ‘the rest’. Please also scroll through Stereophile’s record reviews of recent decades, you will be surprised how strong ‘the rest’ camp is.