Streaming Audio: Hi-Fi It Ain't

Albums in the stream: why RealAudio won't replace the record store

Written July 12, 1996
Published by Websight Magazine in October, 1996

Several weeks ago, Reprise Records announced that, by using Real Audio, they would World Premiere the new Neil Young album, Broken Arrow, exclusively over the Web. This was to happen at midnight on the Sunday before it hit the record stores.

Since I'm currently in no-life mode, I figured what the hell: why not bask in Neil's fine new record before I could actually purchase it for my very own? Besides, it was time to give Real Audio a shot again. After all, the last time I'd heard anything in Real Audio was back in the dark days early this year. This was before hotshots started plaguing all of us with the "target" attribute. In fact, it was just as Gif 89, Java & Shockwave started systematically stalking and killing server pushes one by one. A long time ago, at least by the way technology on the Net is measured. So at midnight, at mid-year, I was ready and raring: not just to hear Neil's new record, but also to find out what the makers of Real Audio had done to increase the sound quality of one of the potential killer apps of the Web: real-time streaming audio.

Or maybe not. It was well past 1:00am before any of the sites (besides Reprise, the album was going to premiere on Timecast , a site related to Real Audio, and over at Addicted to Noise ), actually had the album available for download. By that time, I decided that I would listen to it the next morning.

I bring this up not to embarrass any of the parties involved (though long-time Neil Young fans would be well-advised to skip the embarassingly slim Reprise site - I mean, the man's been recording for them for nearly 30 years! -- and head directly for the amazing Hyperrust) but to acknowledge that because this technology is new, the delivery systems aren't perfected in any way, shape or form. If a radio station -- or a record store - announced the World Premiere of somebody's new album, it be there, because they've had years and years of of practice to make it perfect.

And one thing I know for sure: behind the placid surface of a web page, especially a time-sensitive web page, lies any number of people tearing their hair out because things are breaking or giving them unexpected results. But your average punter hasn't necessarily been on the other side of a hard deadline all he or she knows is that it was promised, and it ain't there. End of story.

In fact, one of those average punters that I know had been enjoying the record for at least a couple of weeks using nothing more than a bootleg cassette tape.

Nevertheless, I listened to the entire album first thing Sunday morning, and came to two inescapable conclusions:

  1. As a music delivery system, Real Audio still sucks
  2. As a music delivery system, Neil Young still rules

I 'spose the latter is pretty much a given to those of us who believe, but it's the former that concerns this writer, because, like I said earlier, streaming audio (and I've been picking on Real Audio here, but it isn't just them) is supposed to be one of the potential killer apps of the Web, just like cheap long-distance phone service and gambling. But it just didn't sound very good at all. I only stuck around in the interest of science. But so what? you say, the earliest radio broadcasts were pretty sucky, as were the earliest records. Surely when all the technological and bandwidth issues are solved, everybody will get their music from the Net, and the record store will be a thing of the past. Right?

Well, I'm here to tell you that I'm not so very sure that's going to happen.

Let's forget the cruddy sub-bootleg sound quality, and loss of signal over my shaky 28.8 connection (which 95% of the time is actually connecting at 26.4), especially whenever I was trying to do something else, like download even a moderately-sized graphic from normal surfing.

Let's forget the fact that my sound card, speakers, connection, and system are about as average and normal as it comes and skip ahead to the ideal:

Let's say, just for the hell of it, that its a couple of years in the future, and all of the conditions are perfect for downloading music from the Web. Even better, as reward for the fruits of my labors (or maybe I won the lottery) I now have state-of-the-art computer system, and I've even got it wired through my kick-ass stereo system. Naturally, I've also got a T-1 plugged directly into the back of my box for exceptional speed and connectivity.

Let's also say, just for the hell of it, that there is a humungous pool of music out there -- readily available, and easily downloaded any time of the day or night. In fact, there's even a compensation system in place so I'm not ripping any artists off and the record companies can get their blood money for distribution.

In other words, let's postulate an absolutely perfect world for music over the Web. In this model, any music currently available on CD is also available (for a miniscule fee) over the Web. I don't ever have to set a foot in a record store again.

So why ain't I biting?

First of all, when you add all that stuff together, what you essentially have is radio. Well, pay-per-view radio (and yes, I know that's a contradictory phrase) Sure, it's cool for experimentation, or for previews and premieres, and it probably rules for special events, but for a serious music collector, it sucks on one basic level: pride of ownership.

See, I'm proud of my record collection, warts and all. I've spent a lot of time, energy and money tracking down the 1000 or so CDs (and the 1400 or so records I had before then ) over the years. For me, a trip to a good record store - Amoeba in Berkeley; Aron's in Hollywood -- is full of drama, suspense, and serendipity. And my record collection is constantly evolving and changing -- especially now in the CD era, where the trade in used product more than offsets the rip-off prices that most record labels routinely charge.

It's this pride of ownership that I think will keep streaming audio (though not streaming video) from being anything more than a glorified digital radio narrowcast, good mostly for broadcasting World Premieres or musical experimentation. Sure, I might be able to listen to anything I want, but it still won't be mine.

And don't be tossing any Luddism charges at me, either. I already went through that phase a decade ago about the compact disc. Then I bought a CD player. And eventually phased vinyl out altogether. However, I was won over by the portablilty of the CD, as well as those multi-changer machine. But It's just that - like any and all communications media - there are some things the Web isn't well-suited for. And one of them is music collection.

Yuck. Technophobia. Another deadline-induced rant. I was clearly running out of music-oriented things to write about.

Back to my Writing Home Page

WritingMy MusicCool

This page HTMLized on 6 October 1997
I was listening to Bob Dylan -- Time Out Of Mind