Posts Tagged ‘streaming’


Media technologies are additive

October 11, 2011

I’ve been watching the debate over Amazon’s e-book rental service, announced a few weeks ago. I can’t help but notice how it recapitulates the debate over streaming music.

Here’s a pretty normal day for me and music: I’ll listen to the radio in my car en route to work. I take my iPod, loaded with MP3s, to the gym. At my desk, I stream music via Spotify, or, or by using for MP3 links, or Hype Machine, or more. Or I stream more radio. On the way home, I listen to CDs (my car is too old to have an auxiliary input). I might stream Spotify to my phone as I walk out to meet friends for dinner. And I’ll put a vinyl record on when I come home.

Similarly, my office is full of text. Textbooks. Large-format coffee-table style books. My Kindle. Hand-bound copies of all of my theses. PDF e-books on my computer. Printouts of manuscripts to review. Bookmarks to online texts in my browser. Novels: hardbound, trade and pocket paperback. On my phone, Kindle and Instapaper.  Workbooks.

I recently downloaded a number of illustrations from Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 book, Kunstformen der Natur, from the Wikimedia Commons. They first existed as sketches, then engravings, then the lithographs that went into the book. Someone scanned the pages and uploaded them as high-resolution images, which I downloaded, opened in image-editing software, converted to greyscale and resized, and then downloaded to serve as the screensavers on my Kindle.

It’s a fallacy to think that the existence of one technology supplants another. Sure, technologies become obsolete. But as a user and a lover of the content (the text, or the music, or the images), I’m not interested in hurrying up the process. Different technologies have different affordances, and my primary interest is in being able to reach for the most appropriate one for my purpose.

[photo: lost box of tapes! by Flickr user wayneandwax, used here under its Creative Commons license]


Wanted: a way to aggregate streaming tracks

December 3, 2010

I’ve decided that I really want a mashup of and delicious, with a dash of smart playlisting thrown in.

Here’s the problem: Every day I find cool streaming music in lots of different places. Soundcloud. YouTube. Tumblr. (that’s a piece of my Tumblr dashboard, above). But for most of it, I listen to it once. At most. Because listening to streaming music in an atomized form is a pain. Having to choose and click on a new song every three minutes might be fine for an ADD teenager, but I don’t want my music listening to be completely interrupt-driven. I just want a continuous stream of music I like (and judging by the continuing popularity of online and terrestrial radio, and the love for Shuffler, I’m not alone).

In an MP3-centric world, I’ve dealt with the increasingly decentralized creation and distribution of music by, in essence, centralizing it: by downloading MP3s into my library, and using that as an aggregator. And exfm, which I just started using, is pretty good at getting around the downloading issue. But as more and more music is straight-up streaming, how do we make those tracks into part of our ‘virtual library,’ so that we can find them, embed them into playlists, and otherwise listen at will?

What I really want to be able to do is this: Every time I find a streaming track I’m interested in (whether in Tumblr, YouTube, SoundCloud or anywhere else), I flag it as part of my ‘library’, like delicious does for bookmarks or exfm does for MP3s. Note that, unlike delicious, I don’t want to manually tag it. Because, well, I’m lazy. But also because I either know the song, and I can classify it ways I can’t easily articulate into a folksonomy, or I don’t know it, and can’t classify it at all. So I’d really like some tools to automagically organize it into playlists in a range of ways. And then I’d like to just be able to listen to a Shuffler-like continuous stream that pulls together my flagged streaming tracks, my own MP3s, tracks from streaming services like, and more.

Oh, and I’d also like a pony. Or maybe a unicorn.

What do you think?

This post is the result of a conversation this morning with Jason Herskowitz, prompted by a question from Mark Mulligan.


Power, communication, and files

May 2, 2010

Processor power increases exponentially. Hard drive storage increases exponentially. And the energy density in batteries? Decidedly not exponential. Lithium ion batteries are thought to be nearing their technical limits, and alternatives are still probably a few years away.

I thought about this the other day when I was working at my local coffee shop. On the table in front of me I had both my fancy smartphone and my ancient MP3 player, which is what I was listening to. Because, frankly, I don’t trust my phone to have enough juice to make it through the day if I use it for frivolous things like playing Plants vs Zombies. Or listening to music.

Streaming music over the 3G network, is incredibly energy-intensive – like talking on the phone constantly. Rhapsody and Spotify have figured this out, unsurprisingly, and their iPhone apps enable you to download playlists of music to your phone over WiFi. (With an average speed of 22 Mbit/s for an 802.11g network, you can download a 5 min song at a bitrate of 128 kbit/s in just a couple of seconds, so you don’t need to spend long in a hotspot.) But having a bunch of playlists on tap is still pretty far from true streaming music.

Given a constant energy density, of course, one option is just to make the battery bigger. And my coder friends tell me that clever programming can help a lot with battery life. But for smartphones, we really just need much better power sources before the promise of whatever you want to listen to, whenever you want it, wherever you are, can become a reality. Dear materials scientists and electrical engineers, please get right on that, will you?

Thanks to Mark Chang for some technical background to this post; any misapprehensions are entirely my fault, not his.

Image: New Battery Generations, from the Argonne National Laboratory, posted here under its Creative Commons license. How freaking cool is that?


Audio fidelity is overrated

April 8, 2010

For most of us, more audio fidelity isn’t better. It’s a bar. And above that bar, you’re fine.

My car is old-school enough that it doesn’t have an MP3 input, which means I listen to everything on CD. That means I’m regularly swapping between purchased CDs (LPCM audio) and burned MP3s – it’s not quite an A-B comparison, but it’s close. Could I tell the difference if I was sitting quietly in a soundproofed room? Maybe. Can I tell the difference over engine and traffic noise on my factory-installed car stereo? Not a chance.

In general, advances in reproduction of music have been about making it more accessible, not about making it sound better. From live musicians to player pianos, from record players to iPods, most consumer-oriented music technology has led to music being available to a wider range of people, in a wider range of environments. And Paul Lamere made a related point in a discussion earlier this week: “The audio fidelity you can buy for $100 today is a lot higher than what $100 would have gotten you thirty years ago.”

Note that I can think of two counterexamples to this general progression of increased access and lower quality. One was deliberate: the move from AM to FM radio, which sounds much better but generally has a  shorter range. The second counterexample is really more of a side effect: the move from vinyl to CD, which was clearly mandated by the convenience of the shiny little discs. I know that many people argue that vinyl sounds better than CDs. I’ve never done the comparison myself (although I’m sure that many people reading this post have), but I can readily believe that a pristine LP on an expensive system would sound better than a CD. But in the real world? I have CDs that I’ve been listening to regularly for well over a decade, and they sound as good as they did when I first ripped off the cellophane. I doubt that would be true for a record. Digital fidelity is not to be sneezed at.

So this idea of being prescriptive about audio fidelity—”Oh noes! You’re storing all your music at MP3s! You’ll regret it!”—doesn’t seem to be in line with what people actually do with music, which is to readily trade fidelity for accessibility. Kryder’s Law being what it is, it’s increasingly possible to store lossless versions of music on your hard drive—but how many people will take advantage of more hard drive space to simply store more songs? I love music, but I have no illusions about being an audiophile. Based on the overwhelming evidence, I’m not alone.

The open question remains: how low can you go? A friend of mine finds satellite radio intolerable because of the high degree of audio compression low bitrate [see EDIT, below] (many people are oblivious, including me, although I do find it intolerable that there are 200 channels and barely anything worth listening to). As streaming becomes an increasingly viable alternative to downloading, is something similar going to happen with audio on mobile devices?

Feel free to flame me for being a audio Philistine in the comments. Or just share what you think.

EDIT: Mike corrected me in the comments, below: satellite radios use a lower bitrate, not a higher degree of compression.

Image: MP3 vs CD quality (PCM) by Flickr user filicudi, used here under its Creative Commons license.


Jukebox in the sky, or in our hands?

June 8, 2009

HD vs year

Further to our discussion of streaming vs downloading a couple of weeks ago, here’s a short article from Digital Renaissance, “The Future of Private Copying,” that came out about a year ago, in which the author gives projections for the average size of a hard drive. I’ve taken the data from that article* and plotted it; note that it’s a straight line on a semi-logarithmic scale (that is, the size of hard drives is increasing exponentially, Kryder’s Law). Also note that the average song is about 5 MB (0.005 GB) as an MP3 and about 25 MB in a lossless format. As the author writes, “How will this development affect private copying? When music fans can say: “I have all the music from 1950-2010, do you want to copy?” What kind of business models will be viable in such a reality?”

I’d love to see something similar forecasting the use of the wireless spectrum, which I know is a bit up in the air right now because of the delays in switching from analog to digital television broadcasts. If anyone can point me to a good reference, I’d really appreciate it.

*I haven’t sourced the data, but a quick troll through Dell and Apple’s site suggests that the numbers are in the right ballpark, and the shape of the curve is documented. It is an extrapolation though, which is always a bit dangerous.

EDIT: In the comments, Mark Chang writes:

The spectrum is there. It all depends on regulation and deployment costs in a country like the US. For instance, in Korea, SK Telecom has had MelOn, a streaming music service, since 2004. AFAIK, you can subscribe and stream all you want to your phone….

I would say that storage is free, bandwidth is where you pay. And you end up paying the provider of said bandwidth plus the fees to cover the licensing of the material. Since in the US, the copyright complexities and general craziness of the recording industry, and the propriety-stuff-first thinking of the wireless carriers, it becomes orders of magnitude harder. But only from a business perspective. This is all easy from a technology standpoint, and really, advantageous from a cost perspective.


Streaming vs downloading

May 26, 2009

peanutsAt the SanFran MusicTech Summit last week, Terry McBride continued to beat the drum for streaming music versus downloading media. He argues that mobile devices will enable us to listen to anything, anywhere, thereby obviating the need to select and store music ourselves. I respect McBride and what he’s done with Nettwerk tremendously. But, at least at the moment, the streaming-only model of music has some significant challenges.

Streaming requires an always-on connection. Some places where I’ve listened to music in the last couple of days: At my desk. On the highway. In my apartment. Somewhere in the Snoqualmie-Mount Baker National Forest. In the weight room of my gym, which is in its basement. Only two of these places have a reliable connection to the outside world. It was pointed out (by Robb McDaniels, I believe) that you can always push music to a device faster than you can listen to it, which means that you have a buffer. Of course, this seems to defeat one of the few advantages of streaming: that you can select music spontaneously.

Bandwidth is a much scarcer resource than storage. Raise your hand if you think that we have lots of wireless bandwidth to go around. Now raise your hand if you think that that we’re near the lower limit of memory storage size and price. You over there, doing the Superman impersonation, put your hands back on the keyboard and go learn about the tragedy of the commons and Moore’s Law. If I want to listen to the Hold Steady and Malcolm Middleton cover of Bryan Adam’s “Run to You” a hundred times (and I do), I can download it a hundred times and save the storage cost, or I can download it once and not have to worry about bandwidth and a connection. And frankly, I much prefer the solution where I’m paying the cost of storing the music on my nth generation iPhone rather than making everyone else share the cost by wirelessly streaming it everytime I want it.

I don’t trust the music companies. Unfortunately, there isn’t a technological fix for this one. After a decade of RIAA, DRM on iTunes, and more, we’ve been Charlie Brown to the music industry’s Lucy a few too many times. I don’t trust them to not yank the football of my music away from me – it’s as simple as that. I’m happy to stream music, especially when it’s well-curated and new (thank you, KEXP). But if I’m ever going to want to listen to it again, I want a physical copy or an unrestricted digital copy. I want to own it – to have unrestricted, irrevocable access to it indefinitely, so I can listen to it without EULAs or unilaterally-defined ToS.

What do you think? Am I hopeless Luddite, clinging to the notion of music as property when I should be embracing the Great Big Jukebox in the Sky? Has the ability to stream music changed your buying habits? Let us know in the comments.

MP3: Malcolm Middleton and the Hold Steady – Run To You (live) [via Stereogum]


Online music services and payola

April 23, 2009


Book editors Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who are involved in educating would-be authors about scammers who who would defraud them by posing as reputable publishers (rather than as the vanity presses they are), frequently quote Yog’s Law: Money should always flow towards the author. The music industry variant seems to have historically been, “Money flows towards the artists, but not if we can help it.”

But that’s no longer true, it seems. Recently, two streaming music services instituted pay-for-play schemes: $30 on Jango, and $200 on, buys you 1000 plays of your music, slotted between songs by the established artists of your choice. There’s a great overview article here.

I’m all for doing things differently in the brave new world of online distribution for artists, and part of that is thinking of new ways to get your music out to listeners who might like it. But I am fundamentally wary of any business model that puts the best interests of the company (in this case, making money from selling music slots) in opposition to the the best interests of the user (hearing music they like), rather than aligned with them. Maybe I’ve just been hanging around with Paul Lamere too much, but it seems like a more sustainable model would be to get the music recommendation part right first, and try to monetize it afterwards.

I’d be interested in knowing what others think about this. Please share your thoughts!

MP3: M.I.A. – Paper Planes (DFA remix) [buy]


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