Streaming & Transience

If the utilities providing our water, gas, & electricity suddenly went down without a replacement, we wouldn’t expect to be able to flip a switch or turn the faucet and receive the service. The infrastructure to provide it would be there, at least within our own walls, but nothing useable would be transiting it. Even considering folks preparing for looming natural disasters, for the most part subscribers don’t save much of these utilities’ output for periods of inaccessibility, preferring to rely on bottled water, gas canisters, or batteries & generators purchased from third parties. In the United States, we live in a state of privileged expectation that our water, gas, & electricity will always flow (so long as we pay our bill).

If Cook’s Illustrated hemorrhaged readers and suddenly went under, my boxes of back issues would still exist for as long as I wished to keep them. I could still make my favorite recipes, or even try all the new” dishes I never made while the magazine was in publication. Although the number of those new” recipes would dwindle and the favorites would slowly etch themselves into my memory, I wouldn’t lose the insight into a particular technique and the food wouldn’t taste any different simply because the magazine’s staff had dispersed.

It occurs to me that streaming digital media borrows more from the utility subscription model than the magazine model. It does this in a way that analog cable television never could manage with the advent of the VCR. In the old days, a very dedicated fan of an under-appreciated (or wildly popular) television show could tape every episode, assuming they had the financial resource, time, & equipment necessary to the task. When the show went off-air those episodes wouldn’t vanish off the tapes with the change in access to the source material.

Like our utilities, a walled-garden streaming media platform will not provide fresh output when it goes under. Unlike utilities, which charge by rate of consumption, most streaming services charge for access to the pipe, but are agnostic about the amount consumed from it. In this respect, a streaming service is more like a subscription to cable TV or a magazine, where the subscription fee ensures unfettered access to a product for a designated period of tme. Unlike one of these subscriptions, however, nothing produced by the streaming service can be saved for indefinite enjoyment after the service itself goes away.

When I was in high school, I subscribed to the BMG Music Club. I lived a half-hour away from anything approximating a record store, so the appeal of receiving a bunch of CDs every month for a modest outlay of cash was strong, particularly for a music enthusiast. In retrospect, it was mostly a bad idea.

The way the service worked, the subscriber had to decline their subscription’s featured” albums each month by mail, requiring a first-class stamp and the wherewithal to remember to send the form back to BMG, or be assured of a bill for a CD of a clunker album by a big-name artist or a disc by a new group with one Top 40 hit and a bunch of filler. I was not the most reliable correspondent with BMG, and so paid the price; I’m pretty sure this is how I wound up with Bob Dylan’s MTV Unplugged, rather than World Gone Wrong or Time Out of Mind.

Despite the hassle of declining those otherwise-automatic purchases, I did wind up with some excellent music though my BMG subscription. Two of my all-time favorite albums, Johnny Cash’s career-resurrecting American Recordings & Unchained, came to me via BMG. I’m pretty certain my copy of Fiona Apple’s Tidal is a BMG disc. I didn’t keep every CD I received from BMG, but those I wanted, I still have today. BMG shut down in 2009.

Last weekend Grammofy announced the service will be shut down next month. Many streaming services have extensive classical catalogs, yet manage to do it all wrong. Grammofy is the only platform or streaming service I’ve ever observed that not only understood, but celebrated, classical music. From the beginning, it brought classical musicians, musicologists, music critics & journalists, presenters, programmers, and marketing types together to design the service to the particular needs of classical music and the listening habits of its fans. The catalog is solid, with good depth & surprising variety. The collections — “…we call them collections, because they are worth collecting.” — are delightful, running long enough to enjoy without becoming oversaturated in a theme, era, form, or style. Grammofy licensed technology allowing users to personalize audio for playback. Grammofy’s app is beautiful, immediately intuitive, yet not derivative in any way. Best of all, Grammofy took on streaming classical’s financial problem by paying artists a rate by length of the work, not at a fixed rate per track. Grammofy believes in fair remuneration: it paid 70% of its proceeds to rights-holders. Beyond my selfish enjoyment of its content, Grammofy is one subscription that truly makes me feel like I am doing something good each month. I had hoped a similar service would be developed for jazz, my favorite genre.

Hang around the Internet long enough and you’ll start saying goodbye to things you enjoyed, even loved. Communities dry up & blow away as management shifts revenue models or evolves” the platform. Blogs drift off into silence, even while remaining online, a ghost town of ideas & aspirations. (I’ve built my own fair share of these ghost towns.) Webcomics, podcasts, whole platforms (we remember, GeoCities), consigned to archive.org if one is lucky, the digital ether if one is not.

On an infinite timescale nothing lasts forever. The toddler who keeps growing, learning, and surprising me with new skills & knowledge is a daily reminder. I’m so proud of her whenever she demonstrates something new, but would be okay if she stayed the way she is just a little longer. I’m hardly the first parent with this lament. She is a reminder that my world is giving way, a little bit every day, to one that is ours (hopefully for many decades), then eventually, just hers. That’s not bad; it just is.

I think many of us still live an existence that remembers saving little bits & pieces of subscription media that made us happy. Whether it was a pirated tape of a favorite episode from a cult TV show, a bootleg of a great concert, or a bunch of back issues of a brilliant-but-doomed comic book or magazine, we could hold on to & savor a piece of the experience of that subscription indefinitely.

When the stream dries up, as Grammofy will in November, what remains for those it nourished? Are the streams that keep flowing actually better, or just more ruthlessly efficient?

music streaming media

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