By Jack Sharkey, September 8, 2015.

Billboard Magazine did an anonymous survey of 50 or so “A-List” music industry executives about the state of the industry, and there were some surprising results, not the least of which is that 88% of these “A-List” executives see Tidal lasting no more than two years. Of course, 54% of these A-listers also said they would rather work for Spotify or Apple (and presumably its own struggling streaming service) for the same pay than the jobs they are in now, so we’ll assume they’re all anti-Tidal, not anti-streaming.

 

Tidal is the music streaming service that was purchased by Jay-Z and some of his “A-List” music industry friends for $54 million last spring. The press conference wasn’t well received and a lot of people both inside and outside the industry don’t really have a favorable opinion of the service and Jay-Z’s involvement in it, but nevertheless, it’s nice to see someone trying to push back against the tide of lo-res music we’ve been force-fed the past fifteen years. I have no quarrel with lo-res music as an option, but there are those among us who have gone the route of claiming we don't need anything else, and that's just a dumb position to take.

 

Tidal offers two platforms: a $10 per month service that streams ad-supported data-compressed music, and a $20 per month service that’s ad-free and streams hi-res music. As of May, 2015, (the last month data was available) Tidal had approximately 800,000 subscribers, (I wasn’t able to find a breakdown between subscribers to the two different platforms). But at the time, Tidal’s CIO Vania Schlogel wasn’t concerned about the fact that Tidal has approximately 14,200,000 fewer paying subscribers than Spotify. Schlogel asserted that the number of subscribers the streaming service has is not important, but that what is important is that the subscribers they do have “are happy.”

 

Why is that not a fine philosophy for a company to have? Let McDonald’s worry about selling billions of hamburgers while the boutique burger joint down the street strives to maintain quality and is happy with twenty or 30 covers a night. I’ll go to the boutique burger joint over the Golden Arches any day, but it’s nice to know I have the choice.

 

Maybe we’re all concerned with the wrong thing. Maybe the size of a service is not the bellwether of that service’s viability and importance. Maybe there’s room for a service with a vast audience of 60,000,000 listeners (Spotify's unpaid subscribers, of which I am one) as well as a service that provides a high-quality product specifically for people who care about that sort of thing.

 

As With Everything Else, If We Look At What Has Happened Before We Can Get Our Heads Around What Is Happening Now  

In the 1960s and ‘70s, there were basically four non-radio ways to listen to music: vinyl, 8-Track tapes, cassettes and reel-to-reel tape. Most music sales were in the form of vinyl (singles and LPs), but by the 1970s if you liked having your music on the go whilst tooling about in your Pinto or Vega – even if it sounded crappy and jumped tracks in the middle of songs – you went with 8-Tracks. As a listener you were making a conscious decision of convenience over quality. Later, those stretchy, hissing, horrible sounding cassettes squeezed 8-tracks out of the market so we could take our REO Speedwagon and Lita Ford tracks with us wherever we went. It's interesting to note, that in the 1968 ad (above) for RCA pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes, there is not one current (to the day) pop or rock album. The higher fidellity medium was targeted to an older, and therefore more affluent, audience. Beyond who the old people now are, things just don't change that much.

 

By the mid-1980s, modern technology gave us the Walkman and the boom-box, so crappy sounding music was everywhere. But everyone knew that if you really wanted to listen, you didn’t waste your time listening exclusively with things that were really only meant to be convenient. Music was portable and extremely satisfying – just not at the same time.

 

While 8-Tracks and cassettes were selling fast-food level numbers of units, real audiophiles listened to reel-to-reel tapes. You always knew you were in serious company when you encountered a person with a reel-to-reel deck, you just never met a lot of them.

 

Everything Doesn’t Have To Be Ubiquitous, And Everything Needs Time To Develop

When CD’s first became available commercially in the last half of the 1980s, everyone ran out to replace their favorite vinyl and hurried home to drop the CD into their $1000 CD player only to find out it sounded horrible. New stuff sounded great, but that “re-mastered for CD” copy of Honky Chateau sounded like crap. In their typical rush to bleed as much money out of us consumers as possible, the big labels simply took the masters originally mixed and EQ’d for vinyl and plopped them onto digital format. Of course, when you master for vinyl you roll-off a great deal of low frequency energy to minimize turntable rumble and stylus skip, but when you take that same EQ and put it through a device that doesn't have the same mechanical characteristics, all that bass is gone. Early “re-masters” of CDs were punchless and tinny, but eventually the record industry figured it out and the consumer was served properly.

 

Meanwhile, cassettes plugged along as 8-Tracks died the miserable death they deserved to die. By the end of the decade, the hipsters of the day (can you say Dee-Lite and Lady Miss Kier) all declared the obsolescence of vinyl, and the rest of us were shamed into stowing away our turntables and – much to the delight of the record labels – completely replacing our perfectly good vinyl collection with CDs. As great as CDs could sound, there was never any reason other than money to declare vinyl obsolete. Kind of like the turn-of-the-21st Century hipster decried the death of the CD and shamed us all into replacing our perfectly good New Radicals CD with mp3s. If you’re seeing a pattern develop here, so am I. Since they don't rely on, you know, artist and talent development, maybe the big record labels would have died out years ago if it weren’t for new technologies. The perceived notion that every time something new comes along we need to replace what until yesterday was a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable way to listen to music is getting a bit tedious.

 

For Your Convenience, mp3s and Bluetooth Have Replaced 8-Tracks and Cassettes   

Now, when we want to zip around and listen to music, we have multiple non-radio choices to choose from. Our phones can carry around our tunes and we can pair them with the radios in our cars. In theory, this is no different (yet somewhat neater) than having a bunch of beat-up cassettes or 8-Tracks laying around the car floor under all of those cigarette boxes and Dunkin’ Donuts bags. No one would ever accuse those formats of being high-fidelity, they were simply convenient.

 

When it comes to our music, we live in an amazing time of technological advances and conveniences. Why can’t we have it all? Why can’t we listen to music stored on our phones through Bluetooth devices and headphones when we want to, and then listen to high quality sounds from hi-res files, CDs, or vinyl when we want to? You know kids, you can do both.

 

There are some downright terrible Bluetooth products on the market (I’ve heard them, and man do I wish I could tell you who makes them), but there are also some really good Bluetooth speakers available. Just like a Walkman or boom-box was never meant to replace your home system, we shortchange ourselves when we take on the all-or-nothing view of streaming services and portable music. High-fidelity mobile audio is a Quixotic quest that can never be achieved. We can get close, but the listening environment (either in a car or on an airplane) can never be completely overcome. But to assert that stationary forms of listening (vinyl, CD, high-res), where you have to have a decent environment and system to get the fullest enjoyment from the music, is obsolete because technology has made music easier to cart around with us is like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

 

Back in the day, a lot more 8-tracks were sold than reel-to-reel tapes and that was okay. The audio and music press didn’t wring their hands over it. The record labels and artists didn’t think we were all bad people because we chose 8-Tracks over the far-superior reel-to-reel. There is no right and wrong way to listen to music, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There are degrees to which music sounds better between devices but isn’t it nice to know you can avail yourself to the best possible sound you can afford based on your own preferences and budget?

 

Hype will always be with us just like there will always be a handful of experts who broadcast the impending death of things that aren’t instantly popular, but in the end, the music consumer will always prevail.

 

Maybe Tidal fails. Maybe it succeeds. But if Tidal does fail that doesn’t mean people don’t want to listen to high-fidelity music. It just means people didn’t respond to what Tidal was offering.  Go forth music lovers, stream high-res or lo-res if you wish – the choice is yours. As for me, I’m going to continue seeking out the best possible sounding music my money can buy.    

 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and not necessarily those of KEF or its employees.