Streaming doesn't exist

My latest Guardian column, "Streaming will never stop downloading," argues against the idea that streaming can "solve the copyright problem" because "no copies are made." This is technically untrue, and the more we pretend it isn't, the worse it will get for us.
First of all, while streaming music from is a great way to listen to music you haven't discovered yet, there's no reason to believe that people will lose the urge to collect music.

Indeed, the record industry seems to have forgotten the lesson of 70 years' worth of radio: people who hear songs they like often go on to acquire those songs for their personal collections. It's amazing to hear record industry executives deny that this will be the case, especially given that this was the dominant sales strategy for their industry for most of a century. Collecting is easier than it has ever been: you can store more music in less space and organise it more readily than ever before.

People will go on using streaming services, of course. They may even pay for them. But people will also go on downloading. Streaming won't decrease downloading. If streaming is successful - that is, if it succeeds in making music more important to more people - then downloading will increase too. With that increase will come a concomitant increase in Big Content's attacks on the privacy and due process rights of internet users, which, these days, is pretty much everyone.

If you want to solve the "downloading problem" you can't do it by waving your hands and declaring that a totally speculative, historically unprecedented shift in user behaviour - less downloading - will spontaneously arise through the good offices of

Streaming will never stop downloading


  1. Hmmm maybe not, but since I got Spotify it feels like I “own” all the music on there. I don’t mind the ads, and I haven’t downloaded a single mp3 since I started using it.

    Now if I really “want” something I like I’LL BUY A CD.

  2. I agree. I find with my music and video I want an object to control and the advantage of having a ‘thing’ to collect and manipulate/control, whether it’s an actual LP, cassette, 8 track, or an mp3 on a hard drive.

    Streaming is fine but it means I don’t control it to the extent that I, and I suspect most people, want.

    I find that I actually do less illegal music copying now that computers exist than I did, say in 1975, when I would take LPs out of the library (or buy LPs with friends and burn multiple copies onto a tape) because LPs were expensive and, depending on what you wanted, were difficult to obtain.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. I have no Windows machines at home, and I have a MythTV machine hooked up to my TV. As nice as Hulu Desktop and Boxee are, if I decide to watch Stargate: Universe and my ‘net connection dies in the middle of watching it, that sucks. If I could get unencumbered episodes for a decent price (as in: content providers, stop driving the cost of low-grade DRM-encumbered, iTunes or other proprietary-software-requiring TV episodes up into BD season-release price range) I would do it, but I can’t. Heck, because I’m too stubborn to use Windows or a Mac, I can’t get video downloads from Amazon, either. Sad, since they offer unencumbered music MP3s. In fact, Amazon’s music-download service is a big reason why I don’t pirate music!

  4. I can hear the ISP whining now, if they thought that P2P was “clogging their tubes” just wait until they have 2.5 Million users (number of unique hits on TPB as of June this year) streaming music all at once, all across the globe. Using 192 kb/s as a base standard thats 480 mb/s, and if I did my math correctly thats roughly 41.5 tb/day.

    Now lets say the record companies succeed here, with a “streaming” subscription. Lets say only people ages 15-64 will use this streaming service (for arguments sake), thats 206 Million people all streaming (about 3.4 pb/day). That doesnt even factor in higher quality streams, streaming movie services, or video games. Big content is delusional if they think this system will work.

  5. I tend to agree, but just to play Devil’s Advocate for a second, isn’t the reason you went out and bought a song you liked on the radio because you wanted to be able to hear it again whenever you wanted?

    With the radio you couldn’t do that, but with Internet streaming you really can have your own personal radio station that plays whatever you want whenever you want. If you can hear a given song at a moment’s notice whenever you want to, isn’t that functionally the same thing as having an mp3 on your hard drive?

    And yet, I agree because I don’t really like to do that either. I want to have the content in my possession. I’m not sure why that should be the case. Is it just because streaming sources are cluttered up with cruft software and various other hoops you have to jump through? That would seem a correctable problem. Or is it something intrinsic and not fixable?

    1. ..because you wanted to be able to hear it again whenever you wanted?

      That doesn’t necessarily correlate with streaming. As others have mentioned, an internet connection is required, and we don’t always have that access, whether that’s bad ISP service or just mobile with no wifi/3G.

  6. I heartily agree that streaming isn’t about to replace downloading tomorrow, but I do see how it might work in a distant future. If a service could offer me the ability to stream whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, the freedom to organize the music, make mixes and share them, and the ability to easily access that music through 3G, or whatever technology, on a mobile device… well, I’d even pay for that. In effect, it would be like cloud storage for an unlimited collection. I used to have a lot of vinyl & cassettes, then CDs, now MP3s; in the end, convenience and access to more music trumps sound quality and love of a particular delivery system. Streaming will eventually replace downloading if the copyright holders can agree to open their catalogues and make streaming convenient.

  7. Back when Last.FM was still available for free in Canada and I still used it, there was a program available for ripping your Last.FM stations allowing you to save each song in the stream to mp3 files. As long as data is transmitted, there will always be ways of recording it.

  8. More to the point, “streaming” is simply “downloading; but the program doing the downloading magically throws away each chunk when it is done”.

    The distinction is enforced only by apathy or DRM.

  9. Streaming makes more sense for checking out a variety of material, like with a streaming radio station or Pandora. I’m not going to set aside disc space for something I’m not sure I’ll like. If I like something enough to want to hear it again I’m probably just going to buy the cd. Maybe I’ll download it if it takes less time than checking out at a record store or putting it in my Amazon shopping cart.
    I’m not interested in paying to stream stuff to hear it whenever I want because it’s not that reliable and I generally need my internet connection for other things.

    The only thing that would make me buy fewer cds and dvds is if the record and movie industries alienate me by acting like pissy whiny bullies.

    1. And the record companies/ movie studios aren’t “…acting like pissy whiny bullies?”

      Personally I like buying CDs of bands I like, something to have and hold even if it takes up more space than say a HD full of MP3s. At the same time I like the connivence of MP3s, and take my iPod with me practically where ever I go; allowing me to listen to anything from my collection on the fly.

      I think those of us that like physical media are a dying breed, and the majority of kids and teens today would prefer to get the MP3s to the CDs. Big media corporations are resisting this new development either out of ignorance or the malicious desire to make more money, possibly even both.

  10. @phisrow – exactly the point I was going to make before I saw your response. Streaming is simply a form of downloading that assumes the client software will not keep the data it receives…

  11. I remember when I was in high school, the local “classic rock” station would have a “Beatles A-Z” special, where they would play everything the Beatles released in alphabetic order. Being the enterprising kid I was, I simply went and bought a pack of hq 120 min. cassettes and recorded the whole thing, standing by the whole time to edit out the commercials when I could. Viola! Instantly had the entire Beatles catalog.

  12. For a moment I thought that “There’s only one problem: Streaming doesn’t exist. Oh, OK. Streaming exists” was going to be my choice for “The dumbest thing I heard anyone say in 2009.”

    Thankfully, the latter portion of the article was eloquent, and expressed things very nicely.

  13. Whenever I hear music, I save it to my brain. It’s kind of like when my computer loads streaming music.

    Isn’t my computer and my brain committing copyright infringement?

  14. if you can stream it, you can capture it. the data exists in your computers memory – the entire song, if it’s severely buffered. it’s just a matter of writing the right software.

  15. I don’t see the problem. If streaming succeeds, then downloading (hopefully) will drop off the RIAA radar. Those that want to download will still do it, but it won’t matter, since “owning” music will no longer be considered a revenue source. Most will wonder why anyone would bother. It seems like the same would be true for Movies. Why hoard a movie library if you can watch whatever you want for $30/month? And if a few people still want to, so what? Stored files and physical media would not be worth anything.

  16. “[S]treaming requires that wireless companies be at the centre of our daily cultural lives. These are the same wireless companies that presently screw us in every conceivable way”

    I found this to be by far the most compelling part of Cory’s argument.

    1. I think that in the process wireless companies will also have to evolve their business model to meet new technologies. And as far as streaming goes, apple just bought lala a streaming music service. Now what they do with the service with be another matter altogether, but some could look at the purchase and see the writing on the wall; stream your itunes library anywhere, all you need is your ipod or iphone.

  17. Big difference between, which is just one step better than “internet radio,” and something like Rhapsody where you can listen to *any* song in the collection *whenever you want* provided you keep paying the monthly fee.

    I’m not sure the urge to own something is so great if I can already listen to it whenever I want.

  18. Does no-one else remember being a broke teenager and making mix tapes by recording songs from the radio? Even easier now:

    mplayer “[stream url]” -ao pcm:file=/tmp/mystream.wav -vc dummy -vo null ;

    then convert the .wav to something more compact using oggenc or lame or whatever..

  19. i agree too. owning and being able to manipulate content is a big deal. i feel the same way about cloud computing vs the old fashioned pc for the same reasons. mainly having control. i do not like to depend on 3rd parties to manage my stuff. actually i tend to pay only for hardware or hard copies, i find it difficult to buy mp3’s or ebooks. probably that’s only me and i know it’s a bit too old school but i like to actually touch my purchases. digital content is just a last ditch when i cant find what i want in hard copy.

    also the internet is hardly as fast, ubiquitus and cheap as many internet evangelists make it to be. streaming over UMTS or GPRS is an expensive pain in the butt and can’t even remotely beat a local archive. land lines are better but they limit you in your home.

    maybe in the future if internet access becomes free or almost but even in that case i would not trust my data entirely to a 3rd party. having access and control 24/7 and without internet access will always be important

  20. Just a couple of points here. Firstly, the wireless companies already are at the center many people’s lives. Cut off the connection to their cell phone and they would struggle to exist.

    Secondly, this is a perspective from a person aware of and educated about these issues. Most people won’t be thinking of clogging the intartubes when they stream. They’ll happily accept a terrible quality (my last trip back to the UK was plagued by bus rides upon which I was ‘treated’ to music by people using cell phone speakers to annoy all around them) music if it is convenient. Many people aren’t worried about the fidelity, they are interested in convenience.

  21. might not have much effect on piracy rates, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t services that can’t. A friend of mine won a Zune as a door prize at a developers conference. He signed up for a Zune pass. Iirc, $15 gets him streaming of what ever he wants any where with an internet connection. He can load up his Zune with any of the music in their library and he gets to keep ten tracks every month to own.

    He has stopped pirating any thing since then because every thing he wants is available to him for a small monthly fee. If it worked on an iPod, I’d probably cancel my emusic subscription and sign up for a Zune Pass. It is pretty bad ass and it is the kind of service that could seriously put a dent in music piracy.

  22. Lastfm … isn’t really all that great. Suffers from lack of licensed versions, or some other factor that creates a repetitive groundhog day experience. Sorry.

    The only issue is the incapability of the record companies to change their business models in the face of a tidal wave. Terra Firma, the London based private equity firm (staffed, it must be said, with incredibly business savvy people), got shagged on their investment in EMI, because the coke-sniffing execs are incapable of changing and releasing the pent-up dreams of the 70s and 80s.

    You’re right – people want convenience. But I want fidelity – and clearly, I’m going to have to pay for that. But will that payment be more or less than now??

  23. I used to love heck .. i even hooked up with old contacts from years ago just by match of music taste … but now that they charge money in some countries (i.e. the one I am in) I am not using it anymore …

    Streaming is a pain in the butt … and it makes the whole game what is legal and what not gets more confusing … e.g. I love to watch the daily show every morning … i can wait until it is officially online for streaming on comedy central and watch it with the same commercial over and over .. i don;t totally mind commercials, they can be kinda entertaining … but streaming is still a big stutter … i rather just hit a button and wait until ‘it is done’ and i know it will then run smoothly … and that i only get from p2p ..

    I am not against to pay an annual subscription for a show like the daily show … but not for the pricing apple is asking for right now …

    The system as it is right now is just too inconsistent … I am willing to pay a little something (for a show that people can watch free if they are in the US) … but right now .. p2p beats the official comedy central offering …

  24. The term “streaming” used to irk me, because the only difference was that the app that was doing the streaming was just discarding the downloaded content when it was done with it, but from a classical standpoint, there’s not anything different what just a straight download. I am actually surprised that there hasn’t been a super-popular app that allows streams for various sources to be saved locally… at least nothing I have seen,

    I just got an Android phone. The Pandora app is now all I need for music if I am bored of my collection. You know who should be really scared? Sirius/XM.

  25. Others mentioned it, but I think Cory is not really aware of the impact that Spotify is having, and comparing it with radio or is just missing the point. I still download music but only stuff that it’s not available on Spotify, and that’s happening less and less as their database increases. Once always on 3G/Wimax/Whatever internet becomes widespread I don’t think people will even care or know if it’s streaming or downloading, only that they can listen to whatever they want, whenever they want.

  26. I never saw a logical difference between “streaming” and downloading.
    And I certainly don’t want to be dependent on my internet connection to listen to music.

    I did give a try though, and enjoyed it.

    For anyone wondering, I used lastfmproxy to capture all of the music I listened to.

    It still encouraged me to make some purchases however, as the music wasn’t of very high quality.

  27. I think the core of the issue is that the recording industry has so alienated me over the last 12 years that I now view them as the enemy, and the last thing I want to do is entrust them with my music collection.

    Add to this the fact that mp3s/streaming services are still relatively low-fi, but apparently “good enough” enough of the market. I’m afraid entrusting my music collection to the record companies would result in me only being able to access it in a format that was optimized for $10 apple earbuds.

    Finally I am really leery of the emerging paradigm of leasing/licensing everything. It seems to me that this is really just a mechanism that prevents people from ever acquiring any assets.

    I’ll keep buying cds/records/non-drmed lossless files (preferably directly from the artists) and waiting for the a better paradigm.

  28. Streaming will not ever replace downloading until it becomes as reliable and as instant as local storage, including the absolute certainty that nothing and no one can interfere with it… to the extent that current local storage provides. Call me a Luddite, but I don’t trust any current streaming service enough to preserve the songs I care about. I do trust myself to keep sufficient backups; if I fail at that, however, it’s my fault. Given the number of DRM services that already went bust and given the unreliability of rural UK internet services… I’d rather take my own chances than leave it to some potentially unreliable 3rd party.

  29. i can see several problems with streaming over downloading.
    for one there’re the rarities. those tracks you have to wait a couple of days for to trickle in, they’ll be near impossible to find streamed.
    there’s the licensing issue. if some artist or agency for whatever reason decides to pull out of a particular service it’ll be a case of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’.
    an internet connection will also be required, which is not the case once you have the track in your possession.
    and lastly, (or not) sharing. say you want to make a mixed cd or want a friend to listen to a particular track? if you email it to them there’s a better chance they’ll listen than if they have to load the service and search for the track you recommended themselves

  30. Aren’t there programs that record streams? I used to be able to do so with Winamp, but then they pulled the codec for RealAudio.

    In the Good Old Days, of course, there were tape recorders to recorded stuff off the radio, usually live performances by famous people, which just weren’t going to be available for purchase. E.g. we had one tape from the 1950s with Vladimir Horowitz playing his own arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition, and on the other side, Great-Uncle Mischa (Mischakoff) playing a Bruch violin concerto. Well, that tape is useless now, the last time I listened to it, probably 20+ years ago, print-through had made it almost unlistenable.

    Boom-box type radios were designed to copy stuff off the air. They generally had a switch so you could record whatever was on the radio, on a tape directly.

    Not to mention taping records borrowed from the public library, etc.

    The “good old days” were filled with opportunities to make personal copies of music. And as far as we knew it was fine, because it was either for personal use, or in the case of live recordings, they weren’t going to make a dime off of selling it, so it was no skin off anyone’s nose to tape a concert off the air.

    Caitifty@24: tnx for the suggestion. There are plenty of religious spoken-word recordings given away as .rm, but since, the morons, never licensed portable players, you can’t take it with you. The sites slowly convert them to mp3, but it costs money to do that, and they’re perpetually underfunded.

  31. No wonder they fear the technology, the have such a bad understanding of it.

    As an anecdote for someone to make data out of: This week I purchased (as DRM free downloads) $129 worth of music that I found via No one would have gotten any of that money if both streaming and downloading hadn’t been available for me.

    (And I probably would have spend another $50 if every track I was interested in was available to download.)

  32. If anyone thinks that anything will stop people from downloading he must really hate music. It’s been already said before – we always copied music and videos to share with others – it only gets easier. And if it was not for sharing, many bands would be still known only in their hometowns.

    Streaming won’t ‘fill’ your mp3 player. I listen to many genres, depending on my actual mood and am not always able or willing to sit at the computer to listen to music.

    I don’t keep single songs. I keep only albums that I like so much that I’d buy them – and I do, eventually. But I know that people are downloading everything, that downloading became a sort of kleptomania. It’s a mentality change that is needed, not enforcing laws against everyone in the world. I believe that the solution is simply to start teaching, or convincing people to buy the CDs or DVDs (or mp3s if someone doesn’t need CDs) they like. It’s a simple gratitude to artists who create something that people like. I think we should pay them for their work. And maybe, eventually people start doing that.

  33. Streamed quality isn’t good enough to sit back with your headphones and really enjoy a track as it was meant to sound. Downloads are just about good enough (at 256+). Where is the downloadable uncompressed format? I’d pay for that.

  34. Yeah its amusing… “anything you can hear on your computer can be saved” – streaming, Pandora, everything. I guess its just a matter of how difficult that process is and how motivated people are to make the process easier.

    Most people will play by the rules, although if prices go up or software gets more restrictive on what you can do with your purchase the demand increases as more people get fed up.

    There are have been applications that can do it for ages, you can take itunes songs WITH DRM and convert them into MP3s for example.

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