Hey Chief Heathen! Talk to me about streaming music vs. purchased music!

Over on Facebook, I ran into this article that tries to make the case for buying physical media, but fails utterly because the author doesn’t understand the difference between purchased digital music and streamed digital music. It seems to me that this is probably a broad problem, so let me try to clear it up for you.

The Argument

In the linked article, the author says CD or vinyl beats “digital music” on four fronts. He or she asserts that:

  • It better supports the band, because streaming services pay so little;
  • You get security of ownership — the music will always be playable, and you don’t have to keep paying for it;
  • CD/vinyl gets you better quality than digital; and
  • Collecting is fun.

The author’s main problem is that the piece conflates the notion of purchasing digital music with the idea of paying for a streaming service. In fact, almost the whole piece is really about buying music in any form vs. paying for a service, but the author doesn’t appear to understand that he’s missed something big. I get that people misunderstand this stuff, though, so let me try to fill in the gaps.

Purchasing vs. Streaming and the Issue of Artist Compensation

If you BUY music from a digital source, like iTunes (but not Apple Music) or Amazon, you own those files, and the band gets paid. They have no copy protection on them, and you can copy them to as many devices as you like, make backups, burn CDs, or even give copies to other people — which would be wrong, but it is possible. (N.B. that movies and TV purchased from iTunes definitely DO have DRM on them; these comments apply only to music. Exercise caution when buying video from iTunes, and do the mental math considering it more a rental than a purchase.)

There’s no real advantage to physical media when it comes to actual music ownership. There might be a small advantage to the artist if you buy direct from them at a local show or wherever, where I assume they get a bigger cut, but that’s a corner case.

It IS absolutely true that, with streaming services like Spotify, you have to keep paying to keep listening. But if you buy the music and download it, you don’t; it’s always yours. It’s also true that streaming services traditionally pay artists very, very little compared to any kind of purchase, which is a good reason to avoid them and buy your music.

But what about quality?

The quality argument has similar problems. Downloaded digital files — at least from iTunes — are at such a high sampling rate, and in such good formats, that it’s extraordinarily unlikely that anyone could tell them from CD source in a blind test. (In fact, it’s never even been done with 256Kbps Mp3, and the AAC files from Apple are better than that.) There’s no audio upside, even theoretically, for physical media — and this is before you factor in the fact that most people don’t use equipment that would expose the difference between even lower-bitrate sampling and CD source. You won’t hear it in your car, or on crappy default headphones, or on a tiny Bluetooth speaker.

Again, though, the author’s ding definitely DOES apply to streaming music, because the quality is only as good as your connection, and will be degraded if there’s insufficient bandwidth (like a YouTube video, but with audio). This is definitely a reason to avoid streaming services (and I do, for the most part), but it’s not a reason to avoid downloaded digital music.

The Collector Angle

Collecting is the only area here where I can maybe see the appeal of physical media, but speaking as a guy with a 30 year collection, let me add that at some point, adding additional physical items to store that you don’t need to have to hear the music becomes unattractive. I love that music I buy from iTunes doesn’t come with something I have to put on a shelf or in a cabinet. (I mean, have you SEEN my living room?)

Is there a reason to buy physical media in 2016?

Yes. Sadly, though, the article misses the reason I do sometimes still do it: because I like to support my local record store. Even sadder, the reason it’s not in the article is almost certainly because so few people still live in a place that even has the option. There’s no joy in browsing the CDs at Wal-Mart or Best Buy.

So why would anyone use a streaming service?

Services like Apple Music or Spotify or Rhapsody or whatever have all the drawbacks listed above (no ownership, less compensation to the artists, poorer quality), but they do provide something people value: enormous libraries of music. Apple Music boasts like 37 million tracks, which is way more than I have in my library, and I’m a crazy person. Paying a fee gets you access to those tracks, but at a pretty significant tradeoff.

In the past, I maintained a Spotify subscription for pre-purchase sampling and earworm-remediation purposes, but I’ve discontinued that. I wasn’t using it for anything I couldn’t accomplish with, say, a YouTube search, and I didn’t feel good about supporting a service that is allowed to compensate artists so poorly.

Mileage may vary on this, but at the end of the day, I’d rather have my music be MY music. On that, at least, the author and I agree.

2 thoughts on “Hey Chief Heathen! Talk to me about streaming music vs. purchased music!

  1. Okay, here’s my argument for physical media: I play a song in iTunes or on the iPad jukebox that I’ve bought from iTunes, paying actual money for it. The song (first I noticed it on was “Ball and Chain” by Social D) plays, and then the sound cuts out about 3/4 of the way through the song. There are multiple songs I’ve downloaded that have this issue, but not all of them; honestly, I don’t know what causes it. There seems to be no consistent pattern, Songs that I import from CDs do not have this issue. Well?

  2. Man, I got no idea. I’ve never had that experience at all, and I’ve got a shit-ton of music I bought from iTunes.

    Have you tried playing the song with some other software or system, to see if it’s a file issue or a player issue?