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An 11th Simple Truth for a Delusional Music Industry

It seems like a week doesn’t go by without new proposals for streaming music services — some real, some imagined. Most services position themselves to be more convenient than digital downloads. Few promise better quality than CD audio. Therein lies the problem with listener-paid business models, a simple truth from the software industry that should be heeded.

When I got into the commercial software business, titles were delivered in boxes containing install discs accompanied by paper user manuals. From there it became commonplace to purchase a license key to download software and soft-copy documentation. It remains to be seen whether full-feature software can now be accessed solely through the cloud.

The analogy to music is obvious. The industry has progressed from physical media to digital downloads to the promise of streaming services that make music ownership irrelevant.

A concept the (3D design) software industry embraced, that the music industry still struggles with, is that there is a difference between modeling and having read-only online access to a model. Modeling is scarce and high-value; access is infinite and low-value. Model creation requires full-feature software; access requires only reader/viewer apps. The latter provide low-res representations where complex curved surfaces are approximated by triangular facets suitable for cloud streaming. These so-called tessellated models may look OK for casual viewing (so you can tell you are looking at the right model) but aren’t nearly accurate enough for even simple measurements.

Again, the analogy to music is obvious. Low-resolution streaming services are fine for social interaction and music discovery, but not nearly accurate enough for full-fidelity listening enjoyment.

So, if MP3-quality streaming services are the equivalent of reader/viewer apps, here’s the 11th simple truth for a delusional music industry, courtesy of the software industry. There is no sustainable business model based on payment for low-res read-only online access. The reader app is always free.


[About the author. Consumer Electronics and Software industry veteran Tom Dennehy publishes the online journal Surface to Air, triangulating among ideas and events at the intersection of the analog music past and the digital future. Follow him on Twitter @InAurem_a2d.]

Reader Comments (4)

As a recording artist and mastering engineer, you'd probably guess I'd be in agreement that mp3 isn't "good enough." You'd be wrong. It's been shown time and time again that people can't tell the difference between a 192 kbps mp3 and a CD, much less the 320 kbps mp3s that Spotify and MOG provide.

This isn't the most scientific example, but it's the latest of many I've seen:

I've done the same sort of testing myself with clients, and they've never done better than chance. These are professional musicians listening in the studio, not kids with earbuds.

Demanding better audio quality from subscription services is like demanding higher resolution than a Retina display. Once you've passed the limit of human perception, there's no point. You simply increase costs and bandwidth.

August 22 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

Tom's view is mainly understandable however he makes one major flaw. He has mistakenly limited the market that read only low quality streaming could be used for. The market he missed, works with subscription based usage and will continue to do so.

August 22 | Unregistered CommenterGuy Lewis

While I understand this point of view, there is one point that makes this entire article not applicable to the present music market. Kids don't care. As long as it sounds as good as YouTube they don't have a need for better quality. Most kids do not own CDs so they do not have the high bar that older folks may have set growing up on vinyl or compact discs. Proof in this is that a generation grew up on cassettes. Those of us who are older have traditionally thought about music as physical, sound quality and the complete package (liner notes, photos etc.). At the end of the day, the majority of the population who consumes music (meaning cd and download buyers, radio only casual users, and everything in between) only care about the music. That is why a common phrase to hear around teenagers over the decades has been "I love this song" and not "I wish I had a better quality version of this song because it's unlistenable on my_______(computer speakers, BoomBox, Walkman, ear buds etc.)

August 22 | Unregistered CommenterJD

@JD - agree. When all we had was a crappy mono radio and tapes, we made do. But we certainly wanted a nice hi-fi in the future to listen on. I've got two now - and if I want to rock the place down, I won't be streaming mp3's..

August 24 | Unregistered Commenterdaznez

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