In an earlier entry, we mentioned how the 2009 digital television transition not only changed how television was transmitted, but it also helped kick off a streaming television revolution that shows no signs of slowing down. Many of the world’s largest countries have already made the transition and it’s expected that – with few exceptions – every major country will have completed their own transitions by 2021. On a similar technological note, this week Norway announced that in 2017 they will become first country in the world to cease FM radio broadcasting in favor of fully Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB).
Although the potential pieces are in place for a major change in radio, there are still many mitigating factors standing in the way.
Bit by Bit
Although the audio format MP3 was created in 1995, it didn’t catch on until the digital music boom years later (thanks, in part, to the controversial file-sharing service Napster). With the introduction of the Apple iPod in 2001, people slowly began to accept the idea of carrying their entire album collection right in their pocket. But even as the convenience of portable musical quantity grew, the quality of the audio sharply declined. Experts agree that the often-low quality of MP3s – which can be as low as 1/11th the quality of CDs – and the equally low quality of earbuds that are packaged with iPods and iPhones have led to the average consumer typically experiencing sub-standard audio. Not only has this diminished the work of the creators, but it’s also led to a rise in hearing loss – particularly amongst adolescents.
Although several strides have been made in recent years to increase audio quality on consumer devices, the issues of price and storage space remain major obstacles. Whereas the typical DRM-free MP3 can be as small as 3.5MB, a high-quality audio file can be 34.56MB, leaving little room for multiple files on a single device. What’s more, devices specifically created to play high-quality audio – such as Neil Young’s Pono Player and Sony’s high-quality digital Walkman – are often priced too high for the average consumer.
Who gets What?
Complicating matters further is the possibility of exclusivity. Just as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have begun producing their own original content, it stands to reason that music services like Pandora, Spotify, and Rhapsody could do the same. The question then arises as to who will get what. This past autumn, pop star Tayor Swift very publicly pulled her music from Spotify after claiming she wasn’t being appropriately compensated. She then became one of several high-profile musicians to put her music on the streaming service Tidal, owned by rapper Jay-Z. Similarly, Apple – which last year purchased Dr. Dre’s Beats Audio company – has begun its own streaming service with Beats Music. The service is also exploring the possibility of exclusive content with well-known musicians.
But as appealing as these exclusives appear on paper, they may be less so in practice. This is most apparent with Tidal, which has suffered a string of negative service reviews since being launched in March. Although both it and competitor Deezer boast having CD-quality sound service, both have been criticized for their expensive $20/month subscription prices. With similar services also active or on the way – including YouTube’s Music Key – the consensus appears to be that comfort, pricing, and ease-of-use are higher priorities than exclusive content or audio quality.
Although the Norwegian digital changeover is still two years away, and the United States has made no announcement that it intends to follow anytime soon, it isn’t a far-fetched possibility. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2012 more than 90% of Americans still listen to AM/FM radio on a weekly basis, but are beginning to warm to internet-based services. With more and more traditional services switching to digital each day, it seems only a matter of time before the old-fashioned radio follows suit. How you get what music remains to be seen (or rather heard).
Are you using an online streaming service? Let us know in the comments.