When I was a kid in elementary school, I would mow our yard and a couple of neighbors yards for just a few dollars. When I was done, I would inevitably head straight to the local record store. I never once made it home with more than half of the money I came in with, but I always had a few new records under my arm.
Back then, in the 60’s, there were only a couple of ways to discover new music. Sometimes I would hear something I liked at a friends house and run out the next day to buy a copy for myself. Most of the time, though, it was listening to the local radio stations. On clear nights I could sometimes even get a signal from stations further away, and I would lay back for hours, enjoying classics like the Wolfman Jack Show.
In the later 60’s, when the first 8-track players came out, I would cruise around in my friends cars, listening to music.
Fast forward to the 70’s and I was gobbling up albums at a clip of several per week. When my collection reached 500 records, I thought I had reached the pinnacle -- but it just kept growing. To feed my urges, I started my career working at Sam Goody, a combination record and audio store.
Casey Kasem’s classic countdown, American Top 40 debuted in 1970, giving listeners a weekly countdown of the most popular and most requested music in the US. Rolling Stone Magazine also took off in the early 70’s. Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone once wrote that the magazine was “not just about music, but about the things and attitudes that music embraces.”
Cassette tapes also started to take off during this time. Sharing music became even easier due to cassettes portability, durability, and the fact that consumers could make their own recordings and compilations. The quality wasn’t great -- common practices included recording straight from the radio or making copies of copies of copies of copies -- but mix tapes put the listener in control and quickly became one of the most common ways to discover and share music. This marked one of the first times that music listeners were challenged with a decision that many of us still struggle with today -- quality vs. convenience.
The 80’s started with the launch of MTV in 1981, leading to an explosion of music culture. While bands like the Beatles had been producing music videos since the 1960’s, MTV marked the first mainstream channel dedicated to music videos. Songs like “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “Take on Me” added a visual layer to the music and connected bands with new audiences in a way that had never been done before.
The introduction of the Compact Disc (CD), in 1983, combined the portability of a cassette with the ability to instantly change tracks. No need to manually fast forward or rewind tape!
The 90’s and the rise of the Internet marked the beginning of a transition away from physical media that still continues today. In the early 90’s, mix tapes were still extremely popular, but by 1999, Napster, file sharing, and “CD burning” had come on to the scene. MP3s were the most common type of file shared, popular due to its compact size. While the audio quality wasn’t great, people appreciated the access.
Sharing copyrighted music created all sorts of legal issues for Napster and the slew of file sharing companies that spawned in the early 2000’s. Musical artists and their labels needed a solution to make sure they received compensation for the material they had put their hearts and souls into.
On October 23, 2001, Steve Jobs and Apple changed the music industry forever, promising to put “1,000 songs in your pocket,” with the release of the original iPod. While the iPod wasn’t the first portable MP3 player, it was easily the most popular and head a simple user interface that people loved. Seamless integration with iTunes made access to music easier than it had ever been.
YouTube launched in 2005 and quickly became the go-to place to watch music videos, dethroning music channels like MTV, who by that time had all but abandoned them in favor of television programming geared towards teens and young adults.
Satellite radio including Sirius and XM (now Sirius/XM) also began during this time. While Sirius/XM may have been one of the “Godfathers” of today’s streaming options, it’s category-based stations and low bitrate left much to be desired. If you compare the quality to great local stations here in Raleigh (WSHA in HD is a great one), satellite radio just sounds dead, flat, compressed, and rolled off on both the top and bottom.
Slightly better (though not much) is Pandora, which started as The Music Genome Project back in 2000. This marked the true beginning of the streaming music revolution. Pandora was extremely innovative in that it could create curated, personalized “stations” for each individual user based on their likes and dislikes. They were one of the first, and even today, still sit at the top in terms of the size of their user base.
At this time, bandwidth was limited, resulting in music with low resolution to prevent drop outs as you streamed. Pandora’s usability and features still make it a great way to discover music, but the quality isn’t much better than Sirius/XM, falling short of most pure music lovers expectations.
2010’s and Today
Today, sales of most physical music have continued to plummet. Even downloads of MP3s have tailed off. After taking this trip down memory lane, it’s easy to get caught up in the nostalgia. A day doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t talk about how bad music today is, and in our industry, about how convenience has become far too important. But as the title of this post suggests, I’d like to make the argument that now, today -- is the best time we have ever seen to discover and enjoy music.
First, vinyl has seen a renaissance in recent years that makes clear that people love the warmth and experience of records and listening to quality music.
Aside from vinyl, however, we’ve seen a significant shift to streaming music. Spotify arrived in the US in 2011 to much fanfare, based on the success it had seen in other parts of the world (specifically the UK). It is one of the most popular paid streaming services and has a large catalog of music. It also layers in a social component, allowing the user to share playlists or whatever they’re listening to with friends and family. The navigation and features are pretty intuitive and well done, and with a bitrate nearly 3X Pandora, it actually sounds decent.
For discovering new music, Tidal has taken me to a whole new realm. Tidal is $20/month for CD-quality streaming with a library of over 25,000,000 songs. The user interface is simple and intuitive, and a click on “related artists” is a great way to discover new music. When I compare this experience with the way I discovered new music in the 60’s, it just boggles my mind.
The unfortunate passing of David Bowie a couple of weeks ago had me diving into Tidal to listen to his work. Did you know there are 46 different David Bowie albums on Tidal? And that’s not counting the remastered and re-issues that also show up?!
Right now I’ve got this little Bluesound player I am testing driving a pair of the new Audio Engine HD6 speakers at my desk, and the sound is fantastic.
Interested in Integrating Tidal Into Your System?
Don’t worry, there are tons of ways. If you have a computer in your system or at your desk you can just send it from the USB out into any number of USB DAC’s on the market (at Audio Advice we have tons to choose from). Or another great option is to connect up your computer to a pair of AudioEngine speakers and use their little DAC. The A5 and HD6 are great desktop options.
Sonos is our most popular option. All of their components play Tidal. You can plug their Connect up to just about any stereo system.
The guys at NAD have a similar system called Bluesound. They have a card you can drop into a few of their integrated amps.
If you have a Control4 system, Tidal is now an option in their latest software to pipe all over your home using your whole house audio system.
My personal favorite though for a great audio system is the gear from Naim. They had an upgrade in the late fall the installed Tidal on most of their streamers. I think this is the best sounding way to enjoy it, especially on a great system.
While the choices of streaming music services available today may be daunting, just think about where technology has brought us. We now have the ability to pull up just about any song we can think of in an instant. No more digging through your attic or hunting at the local used record or CD store. Today, you can share your love of your favorite artists with anyone with just a few touches on your phone. To top it off, higher bandwidth speeds enable services like Spotify and Tidal to bring you all of the music you want conveniently, without sacrificing quality. To put it simply, the perfect storm of convenience and quality has arrived, and I couldn’t be more excited!
So please, come see us or contact us to learn about Tidal and how to get it into your home. I guarantee you will have more fun with music than you have had in ages and for the least you’ve ever spent on content!