Written by 5:23 am Audiophile Music

Not So Silent Running: Making Peace With Streaming

Mark Smotroff looks at streaming and changing technologies…


I have made peace with my inner music geek.

I accept that I am what I am. I accept that I like what I like and I accept that my preferences may not be the same as everyone else’s.

APR-MarkWithRecords225.jpgThe 45 RPM single B-side by the British rock band The Kinks was for many years my early mantra: “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.”

In some ways, it still is… and I’m ok with that…

(And, you there in the back row, please hold off on the “Stewart Smalley” jokes just for a moment…)

For years I waged a sort of musical war with myself, trying to keep pace — or at least be aware of — the latest music movements. Eventually, thankfully fairly early on in my life, I realized this was an impossible task, even now when I’m doing lots of reviews ‘n such.

What was that song by The Cure? Jumping Someone Else’s Train….

Recognizing long ago that my tastes weren’t necessarily mainstream, I felt pretty cool getting into Frank Zappa in 7th grade (or Tiny Tim in 1st grade, for that matter).

Even with technology, I found myself bucking the trend most times…

In the 80s and 90s, even though like many of you, I embraced CDs. But I never ever abandoned my vinyl collection! I’d put to much effort into collecting them and — bottom line — I LIKED them! While many friends ditched their collections, mine grew.

I bought The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me on vinyl when it came out in 1987 because it had a track not on the CD (and I later learned it sounded better than the CD!).

In the new millennium, just as the CD was starting to sound a bit better and there were cool new higher fidelity formats emerging (SACD, DVD Audio), the phenomenon of downloadable digital music took off. Once again I was an outsider as I wasn’t embracing the ultra-compressed world of MP3s.

More friends offloaded the remnants of their vinyl collections AND their CDs. An audiophile-savvy friend moving out of the country gave me 500 LPs!

APR-VictrolaSoundbox225.jpgLooking on with sadness, I watched all these lovely artifacts of a hobby I loved so much — record collecting — implode before my very eyes. As cool as the promise of digital music appeared, in my gut I knew these people were making a grave mistake, losing something special for the sake of convenience…

I continued collecting… snapping up many more cool albums I’d always wanted for relative pennies… Suddenly I had something like 10,000 LPs alongside my 5,000-plus CDs and eventually hundreds of surround sound audio discs on DVDA, SACD and now even Blu-ray Disc.

But who is counting?

Actually, back then people were starting to talk a lot about numbers …. size suddenly mattered…. hard drive size, that is… and the number of songs they had on their iPods….. The discussions moved away from sound quality in lieu of machismo… I heard people boasting about having 100,000 songs in their pocket…

Friends would ask me: “why don’t you digitize your LP collection?”  

My answer was a lifestyle choice… a choice that fell outside the current trend. Simply put: I didn’t (and still don’t, for that matter!) want to spend my whole musical life managing computer files… It’s much easier and quicker for me to keep the LPs and CDs arranged alphabetically by category which I can choose very quickly when I need and want. Friends would shrug, shaking their heads not fully understanding why I wouldn’t want to have all my albums on my iPod in my pocket.

They also didn’t understand something about digital audio that I did: I knew I didn’t really want to compromise the fidelity of my music, taking already-compressed CDs down into the depths of MP3s. (note: I acknowledge that newer high resolution digital downloads sound much much better, some rivaling or exceeding LPs for fidelity… I have many of those which I have reviewed here on Audiophilereview.com).

A producer friend said to me once: ‘What’s the point of digitizing your vinyl? The whole thing is to put on the record player and enjoy it that way, in the moment…’

I agreed!

Now, this is not to say that I have not digitized certain rare albums so that I can enjoy that music in the car or have a copy in my pocket on my phone for those moments when I want to listen to them walking around town….

I get the whole mobile convenience thing… For the most part I put at least CD-quality 44.1 kHz / 16-bit AIFF files on my iPhone (I’d put higher res files there if I could).

For me, mobility is a value-added feature, not a replacement. I always still have my originals to fall back on for the full listening experience. I still have the physical discs with the photos and the label and that sense of being that only comes from a physical product.

Which leads us to my reason for writing this soul-bearing thought piece….

]]>APR-July.jpgYou see… these days…. many industry “tastemakers” — usually people who stand to make something off a particularly technology shift — are talking about “streaming” as the next wave for music… that not only is it desirable to purge your collections of vinyl and CDs and 8-tracks and 78s, but now you can wipe those messy terabyte hard drives out of your lives and just live your musical life in the cloud and the Interwebs….

And they say that it will be good for the artists as well as the fans…

For the record, I have done, and will probably continue to do, a certain amount of streaming but — I’ll be frank, friends — streaming leaves me cold as far as an entertainment experience goes.

Meanwhile, the vinyl resurgence continues to grow in sputters and spurts. Billboard Magazine is tracking LP sales again!

Legendary rock star Alice Cooper was recently quoted in a radio interview commenting about the current resurgent interest in physical product like LPs, saying “… the kids, I think they’re tired of buying air. They don’t get anything with it.”Amen, Alice. Amen.

Maybe its again just me, but for the most part I find very little appealing about streaming other than it is perhaps the “new radio” as some call it. But that is a whole separate discussion…

Back to the notion of streaming albums as a replacement for physical product. In the current model, from everything I have read, it does not have the artist’s best interests in mind. Portishead is the latest in a — no pun intended — stream of artists denouncing streaming, revealing that they made a mere $2500 from 34 million streams.

Artists have to live and pay their bills and if streaming is not a viable model for a big name act, its certainly not going to be good for the up and coming act. No, at present streaming isn’t real good for most aspiring artists…

Sure there are some doing ok, using it as a way to get fans to the gigs. But there in lies the rub: it is not supporting the world of pre-recorded music… It uses, essentially, a “free” model for pre-recorded music and that isn’t really viable …

It costs money to make pre-recorded music and the artists have a right to make something off of their recordings.

APR-EndoftheTrail225.jpgStreaming also reinforces the notion of disposability. When listening to a music stream off the Internet in order to discover new music, the music becomes a passing entity, even more disposable than a download and a CD. If I might be so crass, it flows like so much toilet paper down the drain; it’s there and then it is not…

Some of you know that certain albums grow on you with repeated listens… with your personal involvement. When I have had to go to the Internet to stream a particular album, I found myself less connected to that music. With a physical product in hand, I have made a commitment to the artists and their music.

Now, I DO sometimes use the Internet for occasional preview sampling of select tracks for new artists… That makes some sense (record stores had listening booths even in the early days of the industry in the 1920s and 30s)…

Recently I checked out a bit of an album on YouTube by Father John Misty and was surprised to find out it was completely different than what people have told me it was like… Literally, several people have told me his music was sort of hipster folk music… Given his roots with Fleet Foxes (a group I like very much), I expected something very beardy, decidedly acoustic, and possibly very wooly and meandering…

When I heard the snippets of his music, what I discovered was good pop act! My my ears perked up and I made a mental note that at some point I will pick up one or two of his albums to check out. It sounded pretty good, the kind of thing I would want immerse myself in a high fidelity manner (as I have done with Fleet Foxes, the band from which Father John was in fact born)….

Maybe I’ll buy an inexpensive CD first to see if I like his albums a lot and then upgrade to the vinyl… If I find that I really like it a lot, I might even also get a high resolution download just to have the purity of experiences on the recording I really like.

So… ya see…. this is how my inner music geek works… Just listening to that album stream alone won’t satisfy.

And if I am alone in this, well I have made peace with this side of me… I have made it this far keeping true to my beliefs, why should I switch now just because the latest PR hype tells me I should?

Me and my inner music geek don’t necessarily care about jumping on this train… Me and my inner music geek don’t care if we stand out from the maddening crowd… We will continue to buy and collect these fine physical artifacts we call “records” as long as we can… We will not get rid of all our CDs and LPs and bigger-than-a-breadbox high fidelity audio gear in exchange for a Bluetooth speaker streaming audio from my iPhone.

We don’t particularly want or need to listen to music via a watch… (I stopped using watches years ago — when I got my first cellphone with a clock in it — since I’m clumsy always break them!)

Some of you might remember that last year I completed one of my bucket list items by restoring a 1921 Victrola. So, yeah, I’ve added some shellac 78 RPM records to my already unwieldy collection.

You can’t get the same tactile experience of playing a shellac 78 on a vintage Victrola even when playing a digitized file. It is just not the same thing.

apr-Victrola225.jpgMy lovely Victrola allows me to experience what our grandparents and great grandparents heard back in the early days of pre-recorded music. I listen as a reminder of how amazing the Victrola’s technology is — it is something entirely analog in increasingly digital world, something that even when it sounds “tinny” still sounds quite pure.  

When I play 78s for friends, I sometimes see a look of confusion on their faces as they somehow expected a high fidelity stereo recording to come out of the monaural gramophone. Instead they hear this loud-but-small music which somehow punctuates and fills the room, much in the same way my 5.1 surround system does.

I have to remind them that this is a different medium and you have to listen differently. You have to be involved with it, getting up every few minutes to switch discs, needles and cranking up the motor.

I can enjoy a mono 78 RPM disc of Duke Ellington from the 1920s just as much as Steven Wilson-produced 5.1 remix of Yes’ Close to the Edge or Beck’s Morning Phase on 180-gram vinyl made at a fancy European audiophile pressing plant in 2014.

Not ironically and not unintentionally, both my Victrola and my 5.1 surround sound home theater system reside in my living room area as marked contrast to one another… There, in an instant I can switch between an old scratchy 78s, pristine audiophile LPs or an SACD or 5.1 Blu-ray surround sound extravaganza.

And yes, if I want to stream music from my computer or the Internet, I can do so via my Apple TV or my Western Digital streamer …

I guess the bottom line point is that I don’t feel the need to abandon one format for another as many seem to feel when new options come along. In fact I prefer having all these options at my fingertips… But maybe that’s just me because I’m a card-carrying, unapologetic, proud-to-be-a-lifelong music geek following my own muse…

There are times, I admit, when I look around my rooms filled with various and sundry old radios and record players alongside all this new technology, I sometimes imagine myself a sort of music geek version of Bruce Dern in the landmark 1972 environmental Sci-Fi film Silent Running. In that film, Dern is the keeper of the last known living plants from earth on a spaceship. He has three little robots to help him maintain these intergalactic gardens — named Huey, Dewey and Louie. Not to ruin the story for you — its a good movie, so you should see it! — but when budgets get cut and he is told to close down the space garden, he rebels and reprograms the ship for deep space knowing the robots will take care of this last vestige of life long after he has died…

Thankfully we are far from being in that position in our world today… Yet still, in our increasingly disposable society, I somehow feel I’m doing my little part to preserve bits of music history, pieces of the past present and future all in one space. Like antique furniture, eventually someone else will get to take care of these items well after I am long gone from this planet…

Hopefully, this music — and its physical vestiges — will live on with some future generation of music geeks.

Ok, you can make your Stuart Smalley jokes now…

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