Friday 21 October 2016

Music: Stream dream - the game-changer year

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

Online music service: Beyonce's tracks are available on Tidal which relaunched in March
Online music service: Beyonce's tracks are available on Tidal which relaunched in March

In mid-January of this year, I started trialling a new music streaming service called Tidal which had just launched in Ireland. Unlike Spotify, the Scandinavian company that has dominated streaming for years, Tidal was offering subscribers the opportunity to listen to CD quality music - lossless audio - rather than the inferior-sounding fare that we seemed happy to put up with ever since MP3 became a thing in the early 2000s.

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Even non-audiophiles would have been impressed by the improvement in sound quality. I certainly was and immediately ditched both my once beloved click-wheel iPod (which had been quietly killed off by Apple just a few months before) and cancelled my Spotify subscription.

Tidal became far better known a few months later when it was acquired by a consortium led by Jay Z. He proceeded to invite all his high profile buddies - Coldplay, Kanye West, Alicia Keys - and of course his missus, Beyonce - for a relaunch event that will go down in the annals as one of the most misguided in PR history. Having a bunch of multi-millionaire celebrities whine about the pitiful royalty payments of existing streaming companies was going to appeal to the heartstrings of nobody. There was glee in certain quarters when Tidal dropped out of the 100 most popular apps within a few months.

At present, Tidal has in the region of one million subscribers - a 20th of those who pay for Spotify's service. (At least another 60m subscribe to the free, ad-supported Spotify.) The disastrous launch made Tidal something of a laughing stock, but its offering is impressive - 25 million tracks and counting, and all of that in aurally pleasing lossless format. I'm happy to cough up €20 a month for the subscription and feel it's worth playing double for hi-res audio, especially when listening to music on headphones on the go.

Sound quality was something that was being pushed heavily by Neil Young in recent times and the launch of his Pono Player at the beginning of the year promised to let us hear music "as the artists intended". But Pono hasn't really taken off - I can't be the only one who has never seen anyone produce the distinctive looking Toblerone-shaped player.

And when it comes to streaming, hi-res doesn't appear to appeal to the general public as much as companies like Tidal might have expected. French firm Deezer has a hi-res version called Elite which works in partnership with the Sonos speaker system, but the vast majority of its customers use regular Deezer and pay about 10 quid a month - which appears to be the standard fee across the board. Interestingly, the price point is 9.99 whether that's in euro, pounds or dollars so it's one of the few instances where we pay less than our British brethren for the very same thing.

This year saw the arrival of several new offerings, including a division of YouTube, but it was Apple Music that really stole a march on the competition. Apple claims to have the most in-depth music library of all - some 37m tracks, with 20,000 more added every single day. Some 6.5 million have opted to continue with the subscription after a free three-month trial period which are impressive numbers.

Apple was comparatively late to the burgeoning MP3 market 15 years ago but it wasn't long before it came to dominate it and there's every chance that within a couple of years Apple Music will have usurped Spotify as the market leader.

It's certainly stealing a march on the competition in the way it is engaging with the public through its 24/7 digital music station Beats 1.

Devised by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and under the creative direction of former BBC radio DJ Zane Lowe, it allows Apple to be a taste-maker. Most of its rivals simply offer a massive music library with only tokenistic curated editorial, but Apple understands that many of us still want to be introduced to new music the old fashioned way - through compelling radio presenters who wish to pass on their latest discoveries.

And as the world's wealthiest companies, Apple can hoover up whomever it choses. Among Beat 1's initial raft of guest presenters are the likes of Elton John, Pharrell Williams and Q-Tip. Ezra Koenig, frontman of New Yorkers Vampire Weekend is arguably best of the lot and his recommendations are especially worth checking out.

Most of the main streaming players have attempted to deliver exclusive new releases - with Tidal, in particular, pursuing such a strategy aggressively. But it's been Apple Music, once again, that has come out on top, especially when Dr Dre - who became stupendously wealthy after selling his Beats Headphones business to Apple - used Beats 1 to announce his first album in 16 years. And it was Apple Music that debuted said album, the edgy and impressive Compton.

It will be fascinating to see how the streaming wars play out over the next couple of years but one thing is certain - it's yet another nail that's been hammered into the coffin of physical music (and there are a lot of nails in that coffin now).

Only last week I was in a Dublin record shop that's relocating once more and overheard a pair of siblings in their mid-20s debate whether or not to buy a heavily reduced Beach Boys boxset for their father for Christmas. "But can't he just stream it?" one of them reasoned. They left the store without a purchase.

While there's no doubt that musicians have every reason to dread a future without physical sales - even the Jay Zs of this world - it's an extraordinary boon for the music lover. For the €120 a year, you can hear virtually every song ever recorded (with a few notable exceptions, including the Beatles) and as often as you want. It democratises the experience of hearing vast amounts of music and it's the sort of service many of us dreamed about a decade or more ago. As long as the broadband doesn't drop...

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