Gently down the streaming

by Gautam Raja

Whenever I grow impatient with technology, I remember the clip of comedian Louis C.K. at the Conan O’Brien Show. “We live in an amazing, amazing world,” he says, as he uses the example of airplane wi-fi to describe how some of us have totally lost our wonder for technology. And let’s not forget about flying itself, something people complain about non-stop. “You’re sitting on a chair,” C.K. exclaims. “In the sky!”

Sometimes, as I wheel the bike out for a ride, my Garmin cycling computer takes its time to start up. “Acquiring satellites,” the screen says, and as I start to roll my eyes, I remember C.K. I mean, my bicycle has a device on it barely larger than matchbox, that locks onto signals from a network of GPS satellites 20,200km above my head, to tell me how far, fast and high I go on my ride, and I can’t wait two minutes for it to connect?

“Give it a second!” says C.K. to people who roll their eyes at their slow phones. “It’s going to space! Can you give it a second to get back from space?”

I caught myself again recently when Tidal tripped up, as the music streaming service has done a few times in the last two months. Let’s look at the technological advances that got me to this place. First, the software in audio systems can be updated, and the most recent update to the lead component brought with it native Tidal integration. The streaming service now appears as a source along with the current digital, analogue or radio inputs. I have a three-month free trial of the HiFi level, which means I have access to CD-quality music, of pretty much any band I can think of. Bangalore rockers Thermal and a Quarter, or Kerala rock band Avial? They’re there. Hopelessly expensive, out-of-print 70s prog rock band and album Crack the Sky? Yup. Favourite single by Crispian St. Peters I barely remember from my mother’s 45rpm record collection? Pressed a button and it was on my mind. And I still can’t put up with a few hiccups during heavy load periods?

The concept of CD-quality streaming has messed my world up a little, I have to admit. Having all the music at my fingertips isn’t new — with YouTube, it’s been that way for a while. As for playing through the “big system” it’s been possible via the television or the home theatre PC. The game changer here is the seamless experience, and, for anybody who cares, the audio quality. Whether nostalgia, or listening to radio hits, or exploring new music, it all plays loud with a presence, depth and detail not available on lesser streams.

And exploring new music is where Tidal has really paid off—both through search and its curated playlists. I’ve discovered the existence of a “post rock” movement, a musical genre called ‘djent’ and a hiterto unknown love for minimal Detriot techno. And my now-favourite band, Amplifier.

Yet, for a number of reasons, I wouldn’t pay $19.99 a month after the free trial. I’d rather have a personally assembled music collection without recurring costs. One that’s not at the whims of internet connectivity and corporations. It was Louis C.K. himself who later said of technology (this time, Twitter) that we are not required to use something just because it’s there. Sure, it’s great to have GPS bike computers, high-quality streaming and in-air wi-fi, and I think that staying abreast of new technology is important as you get older. But what’s equally important, I believe, is to use it like you don’t really need it.

First published in Gulf News, April 12, 2016