Music

Digital Savant: RIP MP3? Transition to streaming is speeding up

Omar L. Gallaga
Austin American-Statesman (MCT)

If you’d like to stay ahead of technology trends, it might not hurt to have a Swedish boyfriend.

Amber Deitrich, an Austinite who works in social media for high-profile entertainment clients, was dating a Swede a few years ago. He showed her a music-streaming app that had yet to make its way to the United States. “He pulled Spotify out, and it was the first time I saw it,” Deitrich said. “I said, ‘Why can’t we have nice things!?’”

Spotify, a service that allows you to gorge on a selection of more than 20 million songs for free (with ads) or for $10 a month (ad-free and available to your mobile devices), is well-suited to Deitrich’s personality. When it came to the U.S. three years ago, she jumped on the service. “I hate having clutter. I don’t even like vinyl,” she said. “I’m a creative person. I’m terrible with organization.”

She doesn’t keep MP3 music files anymore, preferring to stream her music when she wants instead of organizing files on her computer or mobile phone. She listens to music and comedy albums while she walks and commutes and has kept the premium Spotify subscription, even when she was broke and could barely pay for it.

The Spartan digital lifestyle doesn’t just apply to Deitrich’s music. She believes she only has one electronic book (something from George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series) and has a DVD collection that has dwindled to about two. She watches streaming movies and TV on Netflix and Amazon Prime and, she says, “I know all the loopholes to finding videos online I can’t find through those means.”

To some, Deitrich may seem like some visitor from the near future, a time when we’ve forsaken our carefully curated digital media (so many MP3s, so many iTunes TV episodes purchased) for an all-streaming buffet of cloud-based media we don’t really own.

But, surprisingly, this is already happening, in a much more mainstream way than you might expect, for two reasons: simplicity and price.

Bryce Boltjes, an Austin programmer who does work for financial institutions, can’t remember the last time he bought a music album online, much less a compact disc. Instead, he listens to music on a service called Rdio, using it to stream online music to his iPhone, iPad, Apple TV (connected to his home theater) and in the car.

“I don’t have to sync (music) through iTunes or worry about what song I have on what device or whether my phone has enough space for each MP3 I want,” Boltjes said. For that convenience, he pays $10 a month and saves money that he once spent on buying music.

Even DVDs seem like a hassle to Boltjes now compared to Netflix, Hulu or the movies and TV shows he can rent or buy via Apple’s iTunes service.

“They’re still sitting on the DVD stand,” he says of DVDs and Blu-rays he once dug out of bargain bins for purchase. “They’re just so few of those I really want to take out of the case, stick in the DVD player and wait for them to load with 20-year-old previews that mean nothing to me,” Boltjes said. “With streaming, it’s just instant. It’s such a better experience.”

Depending on how many movies he buys or rents digitally, he might spend $25 a month. The last time he bought a DVD? “It’s been five years, probably,” Boltjes said.

DVDs are not dead yet, of course. But they’re on a precipitous decline, with one study suggesting that online downloads and streams of video will surpass the DVD market by around 2016.

Music sales are shifting even more quickly. According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of digital music tracks fell 25.5 percent in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the same quarter in 2013. Meanwhile, streaming music surged, with a 34.7 percent increase in on-demand song and video streams. Artists earn less money from streams than they do from digital song sales, but the rates for streaming are slowly rising.

Is it too soon to wonder when we might be declaring the death of MP3 music files?

Streaming services used to be hindered by spotty Internet service (especially on mobile devices), but for entertainment fans like Mike Silverman, who works in public relations, that’s become a problem of the past.

“I spend the majority of my time in Austin,” Silverman said, “A couple of weekends back, my wife and I went out to the Hill Country and there were a few pockets where we couldn’t get service. But that’s more the exception.”

Silverman got tired of filling up his iPhone with his digital music files and worrying about running out of space. Spotify, he says, “was a huge eye-opener. Nine out of 10 times when I’m looking for something to listen to, Spotify has it. If I do buy digital, it’s because someone gave me an iTunes gift card.”

He also uses Slacker Radio to discover new music and is a longtime subscriber to Netflix, but he still purchases DVDs from time to time and has a collection of about 300 vinyl albums.

Silverman says his music habits have mostly gone all-streaming while his video habits are still in transition.

But it’s starting to feel as if more and more of us will soon be like Deitrich, leaving behind digital clutter to rent what we want instead of owning a bunch of stuff we rarely bother to use. The convenience of instant-gratification streaming, and its affordability, often makes more sense, especially in spontaneous moments of whimsy.

“Yesterday, my boyfriend and I wanted to have a Disney singalong in the car,” Deitrich reports. “But I certainly don’t want to buy a bunch of Disney albums.”

———

(Read more technology news on Omar L. Gallaga’s blog at austin360.com/digitalsavant. Email him at ogallaga@statesman.com.)

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