This post is the result of a statistic I read recently on the internet. It noted that last year the number of sales of vinyl records equaled the number of CDs sold that year. The context was the supposed “comeback” of the vinyl record. Vinyl records do have appeal to some people, such as those who miss the days of putting a disk on a turntable, and have special appeal to turntable artists at clubs who like to mix and “scratch” vinyl as part of their musical artistry. (I am also preparing a post, soon to be put up, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of digital vs analog music and, especially, of digital vs analog delivery systems.)
Although vinyl is enjoying a slight boost these days the real takeaway from the article I read was not a huge surge in vinyl recordings, but a great loss of sales of CDs. Why? According to this article 645% of all commercial music being bought these days is either a digital download, or a streaming play. Is this bad or good? Let me discuss the pros and cons as I see them. I don’t have the exact statistics on hand but from what I have read the number of commercially released CDs is now only about a third of what it was, say, ten years ago. That represents a much bigger loss of CD sales than the boost in vinyl record sales.
Before the days of fast internet, the only reliable way to get audio over the internet was to download an audio file, store it on your own computer or external drive, and play it when you wanted to hear it. This often entailed a download that took longer to load than a song lasted. Thus a 5 minute song might have taken then, 20 minutes to load. At that point few people bothered with long file downloads.
Two developments occurred that made downloading music faster: high speed broadband internet, and data compression.
High Speed Broadband
When I began doing computer data communications in the late 1970s most of it was by telephone dialup (using a special modem) at 300 bits/second. Later dialup speeds were increased even to over 40,000 bps, but still too slow for large downloads to be easy. At that time faster speeds that did not use standard talk phone lines were very expensive, mostly limiting them to large businesses or educational institutions.
But then high speed internet service began being offered at reasonable prices to everyday consumers, especially via cable companies that had the infrastructure in place since it was needed also to offer video services. Gradually a consumer could get fast internet and speeds kept increasing. My personal internet is now 75,000,000 bits/second both download and upload (though be aware that most companies offer much faster download than upload compared to the one I use, Verizon Fios). Now large files, such as music, could be downloaded relatively fast.
The biggest boost to music file downloads came about via data compression. The word “compression” in audio is used in two ways. Sometimes it refers to dynamic compression, reducing the gap between the loudest and softest sounds in a song (or in certain instrument or vocals within a song). But here I am talking about data compression, making files smaller but still retaining much of the quality of the music.
How is that possible? The ear is very subjective and perceptual psychologists discovered that it is possible to remove data from a sound file and still produce sound that will seem, in some sense, “normal.” Thus some forms of mp3 files might be only, say, 20% of the original uncompressed audio file in size but may seem OK to many listeners. One needs to choose between the amount of data compression wanted and the final quality. A normal CD holds enough uncompressed music for 74-80 minutes of listening. Using a data compression scheme like mp3 or AAC one can get several hours of sound in the same space. Exactly how much depends on balancing the needs of the original material to the quality of the final sound. Obviously an audiobook being read by one reader is different from a full symphony. Some people say they “cannot tell the difference” between an mp3 and the original uncompressed file. This depends a lot on the listener as well as how much compression was used. I tend to be someone who can perceive compression artifacts more than most listeners and thus I am not fond of data compressed sound. In fact, when I record classical concerts I record them at a quality above that required for a CD, so for me even a CD represents a little degradation in quality.
This is similar to data compressed images in photography. A fine professional digital camera can record very high end Camera RAW files, but a cell phone uses jpeg data compression so that lots of pictures can be stored on the phone, and so they can be sent attached to email to others. (Many email services limit the size of an attachment such as a picture). One chooses quality over convenience and, as with audio, the amount of compression artifacts one can see or tolerate depends upon the viewer and the intended final use.
Not only do data compressed audio files download faster on the internet, they take up less space on the listeners hard drive (or SSD drive). Drive space used to be expensive so this was an issue. The first pocket music player I owned, the Rio, held only 64 megabytes of data (about half what a CD could hold), so when I needed music to listen to while jogging, I had to choose carefully. Apple computer changed that scene in a major way with iPod players that could hold much more data and by the iTunes service for easy purchase and coping to devices.
Also, initial music sharing services like Napster allowed users to share their own files with others. This ultimately was declared a violation of copyright but for a time many people, especially young students, copied everything they could to their computer. Many more highly compressed files could fit on their drives or devices compared to uncompressed files of CDs. Software that copied these files could do the compression on the fly.
There were court cases to decide whether sharing on Napster was just letting someone else listen to your music, as they might if they came to your home, or whether it was illegal music publishing. Ultimately the choice was the later and Napster had to close. But this opened up the market to companies like Apple that negotiated paid rights then sold the music a song or album at a time for low cost. That is when some people stopped buying CDs or vinyl recorders and just started downloading the music they wanted.
As a professor at that time I was shocked to find that many of my students simply downloaded (for low cost) the music they wanted and never purchased a physical version such as a CD. As someone who does not like data compressed music this seemed to me like a person who stopped making fine suppers and only bought frozen TV dinners.
But it gets “worse” . . .
Even with data compression there is a limit to how much music one can store on a computer, and even a greater limit to what one can put on a portable music player or cell phone (which has become the de-facto portable music player of choice these days). What if you could use your cell phone to listen to nearly any music ever recorded without having to store it on your phone or convert it from a CD? Enter streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora.
With these and similar services one does not store songs on one’s own devices but “streams” them over the internet or cell carrier when one wants to listen to a song. These services have millions of hours of music stored on their servers and can deliver music in most any genre at any time. Some even try to use your listening habits to help find new music that might interest you. The listener generally pays a monthly fee.
This can be great as long as your have access, via WiFi or a cell carrier, to the internet whenever you want to listen. Not a good choice if you are stranded on a desert island somewhere deep in the pacific (though world wide internet service is talked about for the future). To keep the traffic on their servers manageable, virtually all of the music served is data compressed and sometimes can sound quite different from the original. On the other hand, it is the extreme in terms of convenience. Convenience often trumps quality in recorded music as in pre-CD days when pre-recorded cassettes started to outsell vinyl records (which, though much higher quality, could not be carried in a pocket or listened to in a car).
Of course, the advantage of streaming services is access to most any kind of music at any time, and the ability to get it on one’s phone, computer or dedicated music player. For better or worse, this seems to be the future of commercial music, especially pop music.
1. Is there a way to stream music that is not very data compressed?
It can be done, as long as the person listening has a high speed internet connection. I recently recorded a concert for a client, the famed Choir of St. Luke in the Fields. I have done this regularly and generally burned CDs for the choir members and music director. (A couple were even duplicated and sold by the church as “Live in Concert” recordings.) A few weeks ago the music director said that some members of the choir did not actually own a CD player anymore (which surprised me since all members of the choir are major professional classical singers in NYC) and could I place the concert files on Soundcloud? But they also didn’t want data compressed files. I uploaded the concert and chose settings which allowed someone to download the files to their own computer or device or stream the music. I used the same relatively high quality format as the CD, uncompressed wave files at CD sample rates and resolution. I found that I actually didn’t need to download the files to listen. I could stream well over my very high speed internet. People in NYC said they, too, could stream the uncompressed CD-quality concert. This might not be true everywhere and might not work with some cell phone services, but it did work in this case.
People who want to listen can find the concert at:
2. Can one purchase music files that are even better than CDs?
Again, the answer is yes. There are services such as HD Tracks, that sell music recorded, and distributed by them, at quality levels higher than a standard audio CD. I have purchased classical tracks from then, but they also specialize in re-releases of “classic” pop albums that were originally recorded analog and digitized later to higher-than-CD quality. This is for the real audiophile with high end gear and good ears. A niche service. To read about their quality, go to:
My next post will talk about analog vs digital for the high end listener. Stay tuned.