February 6, 2015
This is the second in a series of posts about my progression through technology transitions, with comparisons to broader trends across the country.This one tackles the transition from broadcast to on-demand media. Here’s the earlier post on the transition from analog to digital.
Cutting Cable TV
I gave up on cable television back in 2008 and now stream most video on-demand, catching only snippets of news and the occasional PBS show in broadcast HDTV via my chimney-mounted antenna. Folks are catching up, with video on-demand streaming growing over 49% in 2014, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
Most of the streaming video I watch consists of technology podcasts and NPR audio, plus the occasional movie I’ll rent for Wendy and me. I used Netflix DVDs and Blu-Rays for years, and still have a one-disc-at-a-time account with them so I can get movies not available for streaming and enjoy Blu-Rays which have commentaries and other features the streaming services still omit. I have used Netflix’s streaming service some, but limited selection and hiccups back when I had a slower connection (buffering…) led me to prefer pre-downloading movies from Amazon onto my venerable Tivo HD.
That old Tivo is starting to show its age; it now crashes every week or so, forcing me to pull and re-insert the power plug and wait a long time for it to reboot to get it to work. I have a very large hard drive attached to it to boost its storage capacity, and when I have some time I might tease out the right cables from the tangle behind the console and yank that drive off there to see if that helps. I seldom watch recorded shows anymore, so I won’t mind the loss of capacity. When the Tivo finally dies, I doubt I will replace it. If I watched television regularly, however, I’d be happy that my cable service has gone to Tivo set-up boxes with their ability to easily record, pause, and fast-forward.
The aging Tivo and a balky old Apple TV led me to purchase an Amazon Fire TV Stick (normally $39, but I did a pre-order special for $19). I’ve had a Google Chromecast stick for some time, but I threw it in my travel bag, thinking I might use it on the road. Hotel internet portals made that too difficult, and I haven’t used the Chromecast more than a couple of times. I should get it out and try to use it more, comparing its performance to the Amazon stick. Amazon’s stick is quite responsive and has been streaming movies without a hitch; it also has apps to let me listen to the music I’ve bought from Amazon, watch YouTube videos, listen to podcasts, and more. The Chromecast can likely do similar things and would support whatever music I have from Google Play, but I keep and manage all of my music in iTunes. I’ve bought quite a bit of music from Amazon over the years, set to auto-import into iTunes, so having access to those songs on the Amazon Fire stick is nice.
As for the balky Apple TV, longtime readers may recall that I bought an original Apple TV back in 2007 and have been using a 2nd-generation unit since 2011. I still use it to sling video from my iPad or iPhone to the TV via the AirPlay service, and I sometime shuffle music off my desktop computer’s iTunes music library, but anymore I watch most podcasts on the iPad, and the Apple TV interface is dated and slow compared to the Amazon one. Far worse, for several months my Apple TV has begun rebooting after I start playing something. It works fine after the reboot until another session on another day, but it is a real pain to start playing something, have the unit crash and reboot, and then have to re-select what I was playing. It wasn’t worthwhile to upgrade to their 3rd-generation 2012 unit, and Apple is long overdue for an update to this product, presumably with a new interface and more support for games and apps. I’m not sure I’ll upgrade, especially if I can figure out an easy and cheap way to access my computer’s iTunes library via my Fire TV Stick or the Chromecast. I don’t want to export my huge music library to Amazon and then pay $25/year for their cloud music service for access via the Fire TV Stick since I already pay $25/year for Apple’s iTunes Match. I presume Google has a similar plan, but I’d prefer just to stream files over my home network than the internet. I may read up on on the features of the latest Roku, which is still the most popular streaming video and apps unit in the U.S., as shown below.
Still purchasing, not streaming, my audio
I’ve been buying MP3 files for years, and completely transitioned to the format back in 2010, selling over 350 CDs after making sure all of them were ripped into MP3s in my iTunes library. MP3 killed the CD, and now streaming audio is eating into MP3 sales. Comparing 2013 to 2014, album sales were down almost 15% for CDs, but after years of growth, digital album sales dropped over 9%, and digital track sales dipped about 13%. Vinyl albums actually surged 52%, but comprised less than 4% of album sales. On-demand audio streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are surging, with over 60% growth in 2014 from the prior year. Over 164 billion songs were streamed on-demand through audio and video platforms in the U.S. in 2014.
The chart below shows streaming audio services revenues as the brown-hued bases of each column, CD sales in red, vinyl that little greenish wedge in the middle, and MP3 album and single sales the purplish tops, capped off by Synchronization.
Falling MP3 sales over the past two years worries artists, labels, and sellers like Apple, Google, and Amazon: the profit margin on CDs is larger than on MP3s and the profit margin on streaming audio is even less. The switch from MP3 purchases to streaming had led Apple to respond with iTunes Radio and by buying Beats for its streaming service. Meanwhile, streaming services like Spotify are booming, but not generating the desired profits.
I would certainly discover more new music if I used Pandora or tried Spotify or other streaming services, but that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to me when I can instead readily access my collection of over 13,800 digital audio file via iTunes on my iPhone 6, iPad Air 2, or the 2nd Generation Apple TV. My 2014 Camry makes playing MP3 files from my iPhone in the car relatively easy via its wireless Bluetooth connection and convenient controls on the steering wheel, although voice control with the car’s own system is hopeless and the phone’s Siri voice assistant is better but still too frustrating.
I have set up a Pandora account I’ve used a few times, and I’ve sampled iTunes Radio a couple of times. But when I’m planning at work I won’t use streaming services, since that is not a proper use of the school’s bandwidth or service, and my cellular data plan couldn’t afford it. At home I’m usually busy with other things and just set my music collection to random play; I’m so busy and focused that I am reluctant to use Pandora or Spotify or iTunes Radio, fearing that random unlikable songs mixed in with a few catchy new ones might be too distracting, rather than just a pleasing musical background for my work.
When I do somehow stumble onto a new song I like or someone recommends a tune, I am more likely to play it via YouTube or an iTunes sample and then, if I like it, purchase the MP3 from iTunes or Amazon. I’m just not into the radio-play model anymore, either broadcast or streaming. My new Camry came with a trial subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio with a plethora of channels, but it was like cable TV to me: too many choices to navigate and all pretty mediocre. So I seldom listened to it and did not explore its many stations much, allowing the subscription to expire at the end of the trial period. Sirius XM has hounded me ever since via email, snail mail, and, worst of all, annoying cell phone calls. I guess they got my number through the car dealer. Such jerks! I would never recommend them even if I liked their service. So in the end, I listen to NPR on the radio, not music stations, and I stream podcasts, not music, with my mobile devices.
When school work is less hectic, I’ll experiment more with the Google Chromecast to compare its capabilities and performance with my Amazon Fire TV stick. I find myself relying more upon Amazon for on-demand video than anything else, and I’ll still buy occasional Blu-Ray discs if the film is superb and the disc includes great commentaries and features like the wonderful Extended Editions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. As for music, I’m so deeply invested in Apple’s iTunes that I’m reluctant to bother with Amazon or Google’s competing services.
My next post in this irregularly scheduled series on technology transitions tackles the shift from fixed to mobile computing.