Opening Pandora's box: the rise of streaming music

Shifts in the technological marketplace are pushing the popularity of online music streaming, a phenomenon that began in 2000 with Pandora and accelerated in recent years with the advent of smartphones and high-speed mobile networks.
BY GEORGE LANG glang@opubco.com Modified: December 9, 2012 at 5:10 pm •  Published: December 10, 2012

“If the world does need it, they'll pay for it,” he said.

In February 2013, Jennings and his band, The Tigers, will release a new mini-album titled “Sweet Action.” He said he plans to release it in all formats: compact disc, iTunes and streaming audio. He said the exposure he can get from Spotify and other services can create incentives to buy discs or downloads.

“Yeah, I'm just going to put it out on everything,” Jennings said. “I used to try to think about trying to be more selective about that stuff. I listen to a lot on Spotify. It's hard to gauge what the general public's going to do, but if I listen to a record a lot on Spotify, I end up buying it.”

Travis Searle, co-owner of Norman-based Guestroom Records, said he has no personal use for such services, since he has access to 17,000 albums in Guestroom's three metro locations and constantly receives new music. He does not even own an iPod, preferring to listen to the high-quality vinyl records that now dominate Guestroom's inventory. But he sees the value of these services for exposing potential Guestroom customers to new music.

“Before Pandora and Spotify, when it was Napster or any sort of BitTorrent or whatever, I was like, ‘I don't care if you download music,'” said Searle, who said he has seen CD sales plummet at his stores while vinyl continues to enjoy its resurgence among dedicated audiophiles. “That's how you find out about stuff. That's how you learn if you really want to listen to that first Crystal Castles album that no one's ever heard of. In that way, I think the online services are pretty amazing.

“You know, go listen to 50 different albums on Spotify, then go out and buy four of them,” Searle said. “Go out and actually buy the ones that you feel need to be a part of your life.”

Growing pains for this emerging market were probably inevitable, and might not be over yet.

In October, Bloomberg reported that Apple may be joining the streaming music market with a service that could directly compete with Pandora. On the news, Pandora's stock price dropped 14 percent. However, CNET.com reported last week that Apple's negotiations with major labels over royalty rates have stalled, and there is no set launch date for such a service.

But as technology advances, tablets become even more pervasive and music listeners become equipped for streaming music, the whole paradigm could shift again. Booker said many things must fall into place for the ideal service to flourish, including technological advances and deals to bring holdout artists such as Led Zeppelin and The Beatles into the streaming universe.

“If you look at Apple or any of these companies that deal in the digital realm, they have a lot longer-term plan set in place than any of us can fathom to some degree. I really do believe that the iPhone came about so that it could be a digital server in a sense,” Booker said. “When digital music, digital movies and digital television are going to matter in a big way is when you can be anywhere at any time and get the bandwidth you need to stream anything you want to stream.”

This “everything, all the time” ideal might seem hard to reach given the awkward adolescence the services are currently experiencing — a problem that is being paralleled in the rise of streaming video services such as Netflix and Amazon. But touch-screen tablets were the stuff of “Minority Report”-style science fiction movies a decade ago. As Booker said, it might not take that long.

“All the roads are leading toward those things happening. But until that happens ... until everything is available on one service in all places at all times, it's kind of a moot point,” said Booker, who stores all his music on a high-density hard drive while he waits for technology to advance. “But I think we're really, really close to that happening.”


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