'audio' Episodes

The History Of Streaming Music


Severe Tire Damage. Like many things we cover in this podcast, the first streaming rock band on the Interwebs came out of Xerox PARC. 1993 was a great year. Mariah Carey released Dreamlover, Janet Jackson released That’s The Way Love Goes. Boyz II Men released In The Still of the Nite. OK, so it wasn’t that great a year. But Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train. That was some pretty good stuff out of Minnesota. But Severe Tire Damage was named after They Might Be Giants and a much more appropriate salvo into the world of streaming media. The members were from DEC Systems Research Center, Apple, and Xerox PARC. All members at the time and later are pretty notable in their own right and will likely show up here and there on later episodes of this podcast. So they kinda’ deserved to use half the bandwidth of the entire internet at the time. 

The first big band to stream was the Rolling Stones, the following year. Severe Tire Damage did an opening stream of their own. Because they’re awesome. The Stones called the stunt a “good reminder of the democratic nature of the Internet.” They likely had no clue that the drummer is the father of ubiquitous computing, the third wave of computing. But if they have an Apple Watch, a NEST, use an app to remotely throw treats to their dog, use a phone to buy a plane ticket, or check their Twitter followers 20 times a day, they can probably thank Mark Weiser for his contributions to computing. They can also thank Steve Rubin for his contributions on the 3D engine in the Mac. Or his wife Amy for her bestselling book Impossible Cure. 

But back to streaming media. Really, streaming media goes back to George O Squier getting patents for transmitting music over electrical lines in the 1910s and 1920s. This became Muzak. And for decades, people made fun of elevator music. While he originally meant for the technology to compete with radio, he ended up pivoting in the 30s to providing music to commercial clients. The name Muzak was a mashup of music and Kodak, mostly just for a unique trademark. By the end of the 30s Warner Brothers had acquired Muzak and then it went private again when George Benton, the  chairman and publisher of the Encyclopædia Britannica pivoted the company into brainwashing for customers, alternating between music and silence in 15 minute intervals and playing soft tones to make people feel more comfortable while waiting for a doctor or standing in an elevator. Makes you wonder what he might have shoved into the Encyclopedia! Especially since he  went on to become a senator. At least he led the charge to get rid of McCarthy who referred to him as “Little Willie Benton.” I guess some things never change. Benton passed away in 1973, but you can stream an interview with him from archives.org ( https://archive.org/details/gov.archives.arc.95761 ).

Popularity of Muzak waned over the following decades until they went bankrupt in 2009. After reorganization it was acquired in 2011 and is now Mood Media, which has also gone bankrupt. I guess people want a more democratic form of media these days. I blame the 60s.  Not much else happened in streaming until the 1990s. A couple of technologies were maturing at this point to allow for streaming media. The first is the Internet. TCP/IP was standardized in 1982 but public commercial use didn’t really kick on until the late 1980s. We’ll reserve that story for another episode. The next is MPEG.

MPEG is short for the Moving Picture Experts Group. MPEG is a working group formed specifically to set standards for audio and video compression and the transmission of that audio and video over networks. The first meeting of the group was in 1988. The group defined a standard format for playing media on the Internet, soon to actually be a thing (but not yet). And thus the MPEG format was born. MPEG is now the international standard for encoding and compressing video images. Following the first release they moved quickly. In 1992, the MPEG-1 standard was approved at a meeting in London. This gave us MPEG Layer 3, or MP3 as well as video CDs.  At the Porto meeting in 1994, we got MPEG-2 standard, thus DVDs, DVD players and AAC standard a long standard for iTunes and used for both television and audio encoding. MPEG-4 came in 1999, and the changes began to slow as adoption increased. Today, MPEG-7 and MPEG-21 are under development.

Then came the second wave of media. In 1997, Justin Frankel and Dmitry Boldyrev built WinAmp. A lot of people had a lot of CDs. Some of those people also had WinAmp or other MP3 players and rippers. By 1999 enough steam bad been built up that Sean Parker, Shawn Fanning, and John Fanning built a tool called Napster that allowed people to trade those MP3s online. At their height, 80 million people were trading music online. People started buying MP3 players, stereos had MP3 capabilities, and you could find and download any song you could think of easier and cheaper than you could get them at a music store. Brick and mortar music stores began to close their doors and record labels saw a huge drop in profits. I knew people with terabytes of music, where each song was about 3 megs. 

The music industry had suffered a massive blow. After a long court battle, the RIAA obtained an injunction that forced Napster to shut down in 2001. The music industry thought maybe they were saved. But by then other sites like Limewire and many other services had popped up and to shut pandora’s box, we needed innovation,  

The innovation was making it simple to buy music. Sure, people could continue to steal music if they wanted, but it turned out that if a song was a buck, people were likely to just go out and buy it. Other vendors followed suit and before long the tide of stealing music was turned back. 

Another innovation had occurred in 2001 but hadn’t really caught steam yet. Rhapsody (originally TuneTo.com) was launched in December of 2001. Rhapsody slowly built up a catalog of 11 million songs and 750,000 subscribers. Rhapsody worked kinda’ like Radio. Pandora Radio, launched in 2005, allowed users to create their own stations. With 66 million active users, Pandora was bought by Sirius XM for 3.5 Billion dollars. But if these were the only vendors that were in this space, it might not be what it is today. I remember in about 2010, I asked my niece about buying a song. She looked at me like I was stupid. Why would you buy a song. I asked her about downloading them for free. Black stare. That’s when I realized the third wave of streaming music was on us.

Spotify, originally created in 2006, allowed users to build their own stations of songs and now has 217 million users with nearly half paying for the subscription so they don’t get ads, with revenue of nearly $6 Billion dollars. Apple Music was late to the party, arriving in 2015, because Steve Jobs wasn’t into music subscription services. But since the launch they are up to 60 million users in 2019. Apple’s services revenue though is over a quarter trillion dollars a year. Google has 15 million streaming subscribers and with the emergence of their Echo’s Amazon is poised to garner a lot of streaming music subscribers. 

Music isn’t the only business that has been disrupted. You see, the innovation that iTunes and the popularization of the iPod created also made us rethink other business models. Television and movie consumption has shifted to streaming platforms. And Apps. The iOS App Store was released in 2008. The App Stores have shifted many an enterprise software into smaller workflows strung together with apps. There are now 1.8 million apps on that App Store and 2.1 available for Android users. These apps have led to ride sharing services and countless other apps displacing businesses that have operated the same way for sometimes hundreds of years. Yes, this story is about streaming music. But the movement that started with Severe Tire Damage combined with other technologies to have a resounding impact to how we live our lives. It’s no wonder that their drummer, Mark Weiser, is widely considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing. 


(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020