Fol­low the artists’ stream

De­spite the knocks against stream­ing, it’s here to stay. Trust mu­si­cians to cre­ate a bet­ter way for­ward.


Talk to record­ing artists, record col­lec­tors or var­i­ous other mu­sic mavens, and they will count the ways stream­ing threat­ens to dec­i­mate mu­sic as they know and love it.

There’s the sound qual­ity. On the largest ser­vices, it’s per­fectly aw­ful. The de­gree of sonic com­pres­sion used on the new Ap­ple Mu­sic, for in­stance, pro­duces the au­dio equiv­a­lent of a ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied su­per­mar­ket Mac­in­tosh that lacks au­then­tic fla­vor and tex­ture. The com­pressed mp3 tracks lack pres­ence and im­me­di­acy. On top of that, the wide­spread wire­less way of ac­cess­ing streamed con­tent lim­its the amount of cru­cial mu­sic in­for­ma­tion. Blue­tooth, as in den­tistry, sig­ni­fies de­cay.

Another com­plaint is the de­gree to which spe­cial­ness gets re­moved from record­ings when streamed. For all their ac­cess to vast li­braries of recorded mu­sic, the ser­vices seem de­signed for dum­mies. Too of­ten, al­go­rithms, not peo­ple, make playlists. Nor are smart­phones very smart when they sign on to stream­ing sites, since you don’t get the al­bum notes and fre­quently not

even ba­sic de­tails, such as com­poser or per­former of the piece, of what you are hear­ing.

Then there is that highly con­tentious busi­ness model. Ma­jor artists are treated the way the 18th cen­tury roy­alty treated mu­si­cians — as an in­den­tured class. Mean­while, Sil­i­con Val­ley or Swedish mid­dle­men frolic with the 1%. The con­cern is not just in­equity but a threat to the fund­ing nec­es­sary to pro­duce mu­sic. Rare, more­over, is it that any­one un­der 14 has ever spent a nickel on recorded mu­sic.

I could go on. Ev­ery bad thing any­one has ever said about stream­ing is prob­a­bly true. But let’s stop here.

No one is go­ing to re­verse the di­rec­tion of this strong cur­rent. The BBC re­cently re­ported that in the first six of months of 2015, stream­ing was up 80% over 2014 in the U.K., his­tor­i­cally one of the most vi­brant mu­sic mar­kets. Now that Ap­ple is in­volved, what had been a roar­ing river is about to be­come a flood.

So what’s to be done to pre­vent stream­ing from turn­ing into a high-tech tsunami wast­ing the mu­si­cal land­scape? A lot.

It so hap­pens that for all the men­ace, at least some of what is said in fa­vor of stream­ing is also true. The riches of the mu­si­cal li­braries found on Spo­tify, Ap­ple Mu­sic, Google Play Mu­sic and Ama­zon Prime Mu­sic of­fer the kind of mu­si­cal ac­cess unimag­in­able just a few years ago. Mu­sic lovers have been dream­ing of some­thing this sci-fi for cen­turies.

The is­sue with sound qual­ity is read­ily sur­mount­able. All the above sites use mp3s of vary­ing sizes, even the best of­fer­ing only a frac­tion of the mu­si­cal in­for­ma­tion found on a CD, which it­self has been out of date for a decade. Slow as they have been to catch on, high­res­o­lu­tion au­dio down­loads are vast im­prove­ments over the CD stan­dard.

The dif­fer­ence mat­ters. Neu­ro­sci­en­tists are be­gin­ning to look at how the brain re­sponds to com­pressed mp3s as op­posed to the higher-res­o­lu­tion dig­i­tal. Early re­sults sug­gest that with high res­o­lu­tion, the brain’s emo­tional ac­tiv­ity is the same as with live mu­sic, while less dopamine, the chem­i­cal be­hind such plea­sures as sex, is re­leased when the mu­sic files are highly com­pressed. The rea­sons, how­ever, for the low stream­ing stan­dard are, these days, com­mer­cial (it’s cheaper to use less band­width and more con­ve­nient), not tech­ni­cal.

So the thing to re­mem­ber when it comes to the progress of art (and to tech­nol­ogy): Never fol­low the money, fol­low the artists. That’s where the cre­ativ­ity and car­ing lies. Stream­ing is no ex­cep­tion.

One ex­am­ple is Tidal, a ser­vice be­gun in Scan­di­navia last year and re­cently ac­quired by rap­per Jay Z. It of­fers CD-qual­ity streams. The cat­a­log isn’t quite as deep as Tidal’s larger com­peti­tors, but the se­lec­tion is nonethe­less com­pre­hen­sive in all gen­res. For the high­estqual­ity sound, which is CD-equiv­a­lent, a sub­scrip­tion is $19.99, dou­ble what the oth­ers charge. But you get what you pay for. Not only do you get sound that is many times bet­ter but the site be­ing artis­towned is more re­spon­si­ble in its pay­ment model to the mu­si­cians.

While it does make the oblig­a­tory sug­ges­tions to like the mu­sic you al­ready like, Tidal doesn’t egre­giously drag lis­ten­ers around by the nose like mu­si­cal in­fants, forc­ing you to first com­mit to what you’re into be­fore you can be­gin lis­ten­ing, as Ap­ple does. Tidal pro­motes pop (af­ter all, it’s Jay Z’s site), but es­sen­tially you do your own re­search and then search. You don’t get CD notes.

But Tidal is clean and ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive. I found that CDs, played with the same dig­i­tal pro­cess­ing equip­ment, do still out­shine Tidal hi-fi, but the dif­fer­ence isn’t ex­treme. More­over, a $39.95 app just re­leased by dig­i­tal au­dio site Sonic Stu­dio all but bridges the gap. When my free three-month trial is over, I’ll gladly sub­scribe. If I lost my en­tire CD col­lec­tion and had only Tidal, I would miss much, but it wouldn’t be a tragedy.

The other way artists are fight­ing back is by mak­ing their own, bet­ter playlists. At least for pop, Ap­ple has brought in knowl­edge­able DJs, and the oc­ca­sional ac­tual artist, to make playlists. But as Mikael Wood wrote in The Times last month, that’s what we used to call ra­dio. And if you want ra­dio, why not try the BBC, the best ra­dio that the world has ever known (although cur­rently un­der threat from the David Cameron ad­min­is­tra­tion), which ac­tu­ally streams at a higher sam­pling rate than Ap­ple uses.

While the trend is not new, mak­ing in­ter­est­ing con­nec­tions among a wide mix of mu­sic has be­come com­mon­place among in­quir­ing per­form­ers, and the ac­cess stream­ing pro­vides is clearly open­ing vis­tas for them. In­ter­est­ingly, young artists are fight­ing stream­ing by re­leas­ing CDs with fresh and un­usual pro­grams as a way of get­ting no­ticed. The record­ings may wind up on stream­ing sites as well but with the notes giv­ing the mu­sic cru­cial con­text and, other than at Tidal, in se­verely com­pressed sound.

Teng Li, the prin­ci­pal vi­o­list of the Toronto Sym­phony, got in­ter­ested in what the vi­ola land­scape was like in 1939, the year Hin­demith wrote one of the more im­por­tant sonatas for her in­stru­ment. A ter­ri­ble year, the Ger­man com­poser was on the verge of im­mi­grat­ing to Amer­ica, and Li has sur­rounded Hin­demith’s Vi­ola Sonata with a mov­ing col­lec­tion of works by two less for­tu­nate Jewish Czech com­posers — Vik­tor Ull­mann and Gideon Klein — who died in Auschwitz; a score by Joseph Jon­gen who fled to Eng­land when the Nazis ar­rived in Bel­gium; and a short piece by Hua Yan­jun from Li’s na­tive China, also war-torn in 1939.

Pi­anists lately tend to come up with in­trigu­ing the­matic col­lec­tions that of­ten in­clude ob­scure pieces and/or com­posers worth at­ten­tion. That’s the case with Jan­ice We­ber’s “Seascapes,” a recital of watery pi­ano mu­sic that in­cludes an early Im­pres­sion­ist work by the French Rus­sian Mar­celle de Manziarly, who be­came a con­tem­po­rary and pal of Aaron Co­p­land and who lived her last years in Ojai, dy­ing in 1989.

There is also ac­tual play-list­ing go­ing on now with CDs. But if you want to know what all those cu­ri­ous num­bers are on the Kronos Quar­tet’s sub­limely eclec­tic “A Thou­sand Quar­tets,” you need the phys­i­cal CD. The stream­ing sites give only the ti­tle, not com­poser. The Arditti Quar­tet has done some­thing sim­i­lar with more Mod­ernist mu­sic in its new “The Rest Is Si­lence: Mu­sic of our Time.” The Keller Quar­tet strings slow string quar­tet move­ments to­gether in its mean­ing­fully med­i­ta­tive “Can­tante e Tran­quillo.”

Michael Til­son Thomas’ “Mas­ter­pieces in Minia­ture” with the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony is full of small pieces. Many seem mi­nor. But the se­lec­tion is so per­sonal and the per­for­mances are so exquisitely re­al­ized that the re­sult is like a Joseph Cor­nell box, mak­ing even the triv­ial tran­scen­dent.

The box is an anal­ogy that holds. Some­times you need, if not the con­tainer, at least the con­text. With­out Til­son Thomas’ per­sonal book­let note or the fab­u­lous sound of this record­ing in high res­o­lu­tion you miss the magic.

This re­minds us that many who be­came ob­sessed with mu­sic did so as record col­lec­tors. The “box” won’t go away com­pletely, as the resur­gence of vinyl shows. But the fetishiz­ing of record­ings has al­ways also had its down­side. Too of­ten the mu­sic be­came for col­lec­tors the phys­i­cal ob­ject to be lis­tened to the same way over and over again, freez­ing the mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. Now ev­ery time you lis­ten to Beethoven’s Fifth Sym­phony it can be some­thing newish and dif­fer­ent, with hun­dreds of in­ter­pre­ta­tions read­ily avail­able.

Where stream­ing will even­tu­ally lead us, we can­not know. Like nu­clear power, it can be used for the ben­e­fit of so­ci­ety or as a means for apoca­lypse. Ev­ery­thing de­pends upon who is in con­trol. Trust the artists.

Ja­cob Thomas For The Times

Ja­cob Thomas For The Times

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