Neil Young announced Wednesday he is pulling his music from music-streaming platforms
Paul Resnikoff: Music streaming quality isn't that bad, and is popular for on-the-go listeners
Editor’s Note: Paul Resnikoff is the founder and publisher of Digital Music News. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Are streaming services such as Spotify watering down your music? That question is now front and center, thanks to Neil Young’s decision to pull his music from streaming platforms Wednesday.
The gist of Young’s Facebook post was this: streaming services have been diluting the fidelity of his music, and for that reason, he is pulling his music from Spotify, Apple Music and other “low-quality” culprits. Young says he simply doesn’t want his music message diluted by bad audio quality.
After announcing his intentions, Young received an avalanche of reactions from die-hard fans, many of them aged Baby Boomers with warm recollections of discovering Young on AM radio and 8-track tapes, both of which are notoriously low-quality formats.
Some of them applauded their hero for taking a stand, but most were either perplexed by the logical fallacies of Neil Young’s arguments, or outright frustrated.
The strange thing about Neil Young’s decision is that the audio quality on streaming services really isn’t that bad. And in many cases, it’s pretty good: If you’re a premium subscriber to Spotify, for example, you’re streaming music in 320 kbps in a format called Ogg Vorbis, which roughly translates to the quality of a CD.
That’s pretty good quality, and satisfactory for probably about 99% of all music listeners.
Step over to Apple Music – Apple’s new streaming service – and it’s 256 kbps with the AAC format, which is also pretty solid. In fact, most listeners would have a difficult time telling the difference between the two formats, if they cared at all.
Spotify and Apple Music aren’t noticeably amazing when it comes to sound quality, but then again, not noticeably bad. And they’re so far above the respectability threshold for music listeners that nobody really thinks twice about it. It’s pretty much OK for almost everyone.
But here’s where it gets interesting: lower-quality formats such as Pandora, YouTube and FM radio are substantially worse than the Spotify subscription and Apple Music. But still, no one seems to care. In fact, very little attention is focused on the actual quality of streaming audio from these giant platforms. It rarely comes up in conversation.
Instead, consumers are more focused on are things such as convenience, ease of use, portability and share-ability. That might explain why YouTube is the single largest platform for listening to music, with or without the video being watched. YouTube has everything, it’s easy to use and it benefits from a massive network effect, which basically refers to the selection and share-ability gains that come from a giant user population. Remember, “Rickrolling” went viral on YouTube, not Spotify.
Young might argue that listeners are merely in the dark, and that they have no idea what they’re missing. But if that were the case, wouldn’t at least one of the dozens of high-quality audio services, formats or startups have taken off by now? TIDAL – which Jay-Z recently launched in March – features extremely high-definition audio quality for $19.99 a month, but very few have even noticed. And high-fidelity digital music stores such as HDtracks have existed for more than a decade, yet consumer interest has been tepid at best.
The same is true for high-end stereo systems, which appeal to a narrow, usually older niche of audiophiles. And painfully-engineered, high-end earphones are mostly for the demanding music connoisseur – which translates to probably something like 0.01% of the population. Even earlier, high-fidelity physical formats such as Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio have flopped amidst nonexistent demand.
There just aren’t enough audiophiles with endless budgets to fuel these ongoing market attempts. Even vinyl – a warm, inviting alternative to digitized formats – remains a relatively narrow market, despite overwhelming uptake in places such as Brooklyn and Echo Park, Los Angeles.
So what is taking off? Well, the most popular portable music device is the phone, typically connected to either white earbuds or Beats headphones, neither of which are renowned for their high-fidelity sound. Even FM radio remains a surprisingly massive format, simply because it’s extremely cheap and extremely easy to use. And for those who dislike traditional radio, there’s Pandora, Spotify and other free or low-cost music streaming services – favorites for on-the-go listeners.
None of these formats are pitching users on super hi-fidelity experiences. Instead, they excel in areas such as convenience, portability, price and selection – all things that fit active, on-the-go lifestyles in ways that higher-fidelity experiences typically can’t.
Users don’t really have to choose because the audio quality is good enough.
All of which raises the question: What exactly is Young talking about? In his Facebook post, Young derides streaming for having the “worst quality in the history of broadcasting,” even though Spotify and low-fi formats such as cassettes (where you can find some of Young’s music) clearly beat both AM and FM radio.
And part of the reason is that streaming is a far more convenient technology, while PONO is a relative hassle. Sure, PONO has better quality, but that’s a solution to a problem most people don’t have. Or, even know exists.