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]


  1. Great post. Couldn’t agree more, on all points.

  2. Awesome post. While I am very much for owning physical music, I do think there’s something to be said for unlimited streaming for Joe Public. I bet it will get the kinks ironed out and it will be the preferred way for many people to get their regular dose of music.

    On the other hand, the people like us (of which there is a significant amount, as I assume most music bloggers would agree) don’t trust the labels and the industry honchos. Like you said, if I ever want to listen to a song repeatedly, I want an easy way to do it. And the easiest way for me is if I own the record. It’s as simple as that. I get the feeling the music listening experience is only going to broaden with options. But I don’t think any specific way is going to die out. There will always be a large amount of people that want to do things their way.

  3. I think you’re absolutely right, Justin, that multiple options will continue to co-exist – I just remain unconvinced that streaming will entirely supplant downloading (the ‘why would you buy music when you have access to everything?’ argument).

  4. I think your technical concerns are right on, but streaming does sound like it would be great to me. Owning music is a pain in the ass. You have to store it somewhere, keep it backed up, and sync it with everything. (And forGET ripping CD’s.) My Zune tends to be way out of date just because the process of waiting for the software to load, update itself, and start loading mp3’s onto my device is so painful. (Which is maybe my fault for buying a Zune, but whatever.) Given the Platonic ideal of a streaming music service — it’s available to me on the go, in my car, and at my desk, gives me full access to any music I want and my playlists for a reasonable monthly fee, and works great — why would I want to own music?

  5. Tim, I totally agree with you – I would go for the ‘Platonic ideal of a streaming music service’ too. I’m just not very optimistic that we’ll get anything close.

    I joke that what I really want is a digital music concierge that makes sure that all my devices are up to date, my music is backed up, rips any CDs that I buy at concerts, and the like (yes, I still buy CDs, not least because I know that CDs sold at gigs have the highest return to artists).

  6. […] to our discussion of streaming vs downloading a couple of weeks ago, here’s a short article from Digital Renaissance, “The Future of […]

  7. […] Streaming vs downloading: Do we really want a jukebox in the sky? Or does it make more sense to hold it in our hands? […]

  8. […] 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 […]

  9. […] 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. […]

  10. […] this year’s hot topic: how the jukebox in the sky changes the landscape of music consumption. From the (admittedly brief) descriptions, it sounds […]

  11. I subscribe to Napster and Slacker for one use, and use iTunes for another. For example why load up my cell phone with music when I can stream, no space requirements, so very handy. Also streaming offers you the true ability to try before you buy. I do leagally buy my music, via iTunes only after listening to it on iTunes. I love the options the internet now offers us, all to our own in the end.

  12. […] 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. […]

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