A Helpful Guide to Music Streaming Services
With the launch of Apple Music, music streaming services have recently gained a lot of consumer interest, and as usual, Apple’s foray into the market has caused disruption, as competitors scramble to introduce new features and modify their pricing structures in order to better compete, and as fresh users new to the market continue to evaluate and decide which service would suit them the best.
While many people are quick to denounce all streaming services as being a variable of the same thing, a common trend is starting to form: These companies are all fine-tuning their focus in order to differentiate themselves with specific users in mind. Some services are offering ways to combine the streaming model with the digital music locker model, allowing users to upload their own tracks and access them from anywhere. Others are strictly focused on providing a competent and complete catalog to stream from, lush with features related to music discovery and social media sharing. And yet others offer free or very low-cost access to radio station-like channels that allow a certain level of user customization or preference tailoring. Let’s take a quick look at some of these services and what sets them apart from each other.
Note: This article will be updated with our impressions of the Apple Music service when it launches for the Android platform. Stay tuned!
Table of Contents
- Google Play Music
- Amazon Prime Music
- Spotify Free & Premium
- Tidal Free & Premium
- Rhapsody unRadio & Premier
Google Play Music, by virtue of the application coming pre-installed on the greater majority of Android devices, is usually what an Android user would first come across when looking for a competent and complete music streaming service. That doesn’t make it a bad choice, however, as both the free service and the $9.99 monthly All Access tier offer some very compelling features wrapped inside of a slick and modern UI. Play Music aggregates music from three key areas into one experience across multiple devices and platforms: a user’s existing digital music library, any music purchases made from the Play Store, as well as a streaming service spanning Google’s entire catalog.
For starters, both the free and paid tiers allow a user to upload 50,000 of their own songs to the service, which is then stored on Google’s servers and made available to stream on any device that houses the Play Music app, as well as on the web via a web browser. Google employs a matching system here, so that if a track is available from the Play Store, it will not need to tap into the user’s bandwidth to upload the physical file, and what’s more, any matched track that is below 320 kbps will see an upgrade in quality. Music that is purchased directly from the Play Store is automatically added to a user’s library, but does not count towards the 50,000 song limit; that music can also be downloaded in DRM-free MP3 format to the user’s devices.
Then there’s the All Access pass, which was introduced as Google’s own streaming service. Available for $9.99 per month, a user can stream any song or album from Google’s catalog, which currently sits at over 30 million songs. This is ad-free, no interruption music playback, up to the same 320 kbps quality a user would get when directly purchasing music from the Play Store. Artists and albums can be added directly to a user’s library or a playlist, and those tracks will appear with and be sorted among everything else, making for one cohesive music library. Of course, albums and tracks can still be purchased if a user wishes to own the physical files.
With such a huge catalog available, Google has built in several ways to focus on music discovery. The ‘Listen Now’ tab offers artist and album recommendations based upon a user’s activity on the service, such as artists to those that are similar in the library, when a user thumbs up or down a particular track, specific genres that a user indicates interest in, recent purchases from the Play Store, etc. Google also offers generated, contextual playlists based upon the date, time, and location of the user, so that one can quickly find relevant music that revolves around a specific occasion or activity. For example, opening Play Music at 5:30 in the evening could trigger a playlist suitable for the drive home from work, working out, or cooking dinner. Choosing a playlist will allow you to select a specific category or genre of music appropriate to the activity, and selecting a category will allow you to further choose a playlist based around a specific artist or concept within that genre. Also available are radio stations based around genres and even specific tracks that play similar music based upon algorithms, and even Google’s infamous “I’m feeling lucky” search option makes an appearance.
The Android app itself is as you would expect a Google app to appear and function: Material design that revolves around a gesture-based interface that focuses on swiping to navigate around the most important areas of the app. Swiping from the left edge will pop out the navigation menu, where one can find the Listen Now, My Library, Playlists, Radio, and Explore sections, as well access settings and switch to different Google accounts.
At any time, swiping up on the play bar from the bottom will expand out to the Now Playing screen, showing full album art and play controls. Swiping left and right on this screen will go to the previous and next track in the playlist, and YouTube Music Key members (available automatically with All Access) will have access to music videos directly from the album art. While Play Music is open, a user’s lock screen will transform into full screen album art along with play/pause/previous/next buttons, and an ongoing notification will appear with the same controls in the notification drawer.
The service is not without its shortcomings, however. Like many music streaming services, Google has implemented a device limit of ten authorized devices per Google account, with the additional stipulation of the user being able to only de-authorize four devices per year. Ordinarily, this is a pretty acceptable practice, and many users will never be bothered by the limitation. Problems arise, however, due to the fact that the service can sometimes erroneously use two or more authorizations for a single device or computer. This issue has been somewhat corrected; it used to be that changing ROMs on a device or even simply performing a factory reset would always end up requiring another authorization. Thankfully, this is no longer always the case, but there are still times when something could get hung up. Take for example my Google Play Music Account:
I use Chrome on OS X, and therefore, I use the Google Play Music Extension for the purposes of uploading and downloading music to and from my computer. One day, the extension updated, and ate up another authorization even though it was on the same system. This is on my desktop machine, but if I also had the extension downloaded to my Macbook Pro, and the same thing were to happen, I would already be using 4 out of my 10 authorization slots. I have heard that, if one were to call up Google’s customer service, they can provide a one-time master reset of all authorizations, and also reset the de-authorization limit as well, so that one could start out with a blank slate. This is unpublished information, however, and I’ve yet to actually have the need to do so, so this should not be taken as gospel.
Amazon provides yet another choice for those users who want both a streaming service and a digital music locker, with some added bonuses for those who still like to purchase music on a physical medium. The service is comprised of these two parts, named ‘Prime Music’ and ‘Music Library’ respectively, and along with the digital storefront, are unified into one experience, the ‘Amazon Music’ app.
The ‘Music Library’ is something most Amazon users will know, as it has been around for a while under the ‘Amazon MP3 Store’ and ‘Cloud Player’ monikers. You can purchase digital music direct from Amazon, which will then be added to your ‘Music Library’ and available to download DRM-free in a variable bit rate .MP3 file, in which Amazon aims for an average of 256 kbps. You can also purchase many albums in a variety of physical formats, such as CD, DVD, and even vinyl records, and get immediate access to the same digital .MP3 files in a process known as AutoRip.
Whether you purchase music digitally, or on AutoRip-compatible physical media, it will all be stored to your ‘Music Library’ for free, with no song or storage limit. You can then stream or download the same tracks from the Amazon Music app, which is available on PC, Mac, Android, iOS, and Kindle Fire devices, or use the Web Player on any compatible browser. You can also import your own music files purchased outside of Amazon (provided they are DRM-free) to the Music Library and stream them in the same way, up to 250 tracks at no cost or 250,000 tracks for $24.99 per year, with no other option in between. A caveat of this is that any imported music above the 256 kbps quality will be downgraded, and Amazon is only guaranteeing imports in .MP3 or .M4A format. For all other filetypes, such as .WMA, .OGG, .WAV, and others, Amazon will need to have the rights to access the .MP3 files from its own catalog.
‘Prime Music’ is Amazon’s newest addition to its music service. Like the namesake implies, Prime Music is only available to Amazon Prime subscribers ($99 per year). It includes unlimited, ad-free streaming access to around 1 million tracks from within the Amazon Music app, and like Amazon Prime Instant Video, tracks are both added and removed constantly. The same 256 kbps .MP3 format applies, and users can also download tracks for offline listening. You can add Prime Music tracks to the Music Library as well, and these tracks will appear among purchased or imported music, making for a unified experience.
There are a few ways to both navigate through and search for Prime-eligible tracks. Amazon’s storefront will show Prime subscribers a banner indicating that they can listen to a certain album or tracks from a certain album for free. There is also a dedicated Prime Music page, which will show recommended albums, new additions, Prime playlists, and popular tracks, much like the Amazon homepage showcases physical goods. Prime playlists are human-curated by Amazon, and offer playlists based around categories such as artist, decade, genre, popular, workout, and more. Amazon also offers Prime Stations, which groups tracks into an ad-free radio station format, sorted by genre or artist, and offers users a way to discover new music. Users can skip and like or dislike tracks to tailor these stations to their personal tastes.
The Amazon Music app for Android cohesively displays all of this as one unified ‘Music Library’, but also gives you filtering options to display only the content you wish, as well as a separate tab to only explore Prime Music. One can, for example, very quickly and easily search through Prime Music tracks to add to the Library, make those and other tracks available for offline playback, and then filter down to only display those tracks that have been downloaded onto the device.
Spotify is the current heavy-hitter and market leader in the world of music streaming services with more than 75 million active users, and for good reason: it is currently the only service to offer a completely free access tier that allows you to browse and play music from its entire catalog. It is also the one that has the most to lose from Apple’s very recent and disruptive move into the business, thereby assuring that new features and pricing plans are continuously added at a lightning-quick pace. Spotify’s focus has always been on both music discovery and social sharing; find new artists, share them among your Facebook, Twitter, and tumblr feeds, and collaborate on playlists together. There are two tiers of Spotify: Free and Premium ($9.99 per month, or $4.99 if a college student at an American university). In response to Apple Music’s family plan pricing, Spotify now also offers 50% off additional Premium subscriptions when added under a main Spotify Premium account.
The free tier of Spotify currently offers ad-supported, on-demand access to the entire Spotify catalog on desktops and tablets, and ad-supported, shuffle-only access on smartphones. What this means is that artists, albums, and playlists can be browsed via the smartphone app, but they will play in a shuffled state, and users can only skip a song up to six times per hour on their shuffled playlists as well as on the Radio feature. Ads are presented as both visual ads on screen, and 30 second commercial-style audio ads that play between tracks. Streaming quality is limited to 160 kbps in Ogg Vorbis format on both desktop and mobile clients.
Spotify Premium offers on-demand access to the entire Spotify catalog on all devices, is ad-free, and offers an unlimited number of song skips. Streaming quality is upped to a maximum of 320 kbps in the same Ogg Vorbis format, and users can also listen to their playlists offline, with a maximum of 3,333 songs synced per device and staying offline for up to 30 days. Premium also offers users the ‘Spotify Connect’ feature, which allows for playback through a compatible home stereo system, laptop, or TV using the Spotify app as a remote. In addition to Spotify Connect, Premium users also have access to Playstation Music on the Playstation 4 console, allowing users to create custom soundtracks for their games which can be played in the background.
Both Spotify tiers include many different ways to discover new music, as well as share music among your friends and social networks. The Spotify app includes its own Activity Feed, where you can see what your Facebook friends with Spotify, as well as other Spotify users you choose to follow, are listening to. You can also quickly share an artist, album, or playlist as a social network post, or message these to your friends directly. Playlists can be marked as collaborative and shared, so friends can add or delete music at will. Music discovery is a key focus of Spotify, and it’s almost impossible to list each one of the many ways in which users can discover new artists. ‘Radio’ builds radio stations based around artists, moods, or genres, in which users can like or dislike tracks to tailor the radio station to suit their personal taste. ‘Discover’ builds lists of recommendations for you based upon your listening habits. ‘Charts’ allows you to browse various Top 50 lists around the globe, as well as the top tracks your friends are listening to.
These are just scratching the surface, as new ways to discover music are being added in new features meant to better compete with the recent launch of Apple Music. Among the recently introduced features are: ‘Now’, which is a contextually aware way of delivering new music to you based upon the time of day. ‘Moments’, which organize tracks based upon specific moments a user might want a soundtrack to, such as parties, workouts, commutes, or having a morning cup of coffee. ‘Running’, which plays tracks tailored to both your taste and the tempo you’ve set for any running activity. And ‘Discover Weekly’, a recently-launched addition to the Discover feature, which is an auto-generated playlist tailored around your music listening habits, and is automatically updated every Monday. In addition, iOS users also have access to built-in functionality with the Runkeeper and Nike+ Running apps, as well as having an automatically generated and updated running tempo with the ‘Running’ feature built into Spotify.
A relative newcomer to the scene, TIDAL has certainly developed a name and reputation for itself. While technically launching in 2014 by a Norwegian company, TIDAL was purchased by notorious rapper Jay Z in the first quarter of 2015, followed by a massive marketing campaign to “relaunch” the service, in which press conferences with famous celebrity artists and musicians were held, with the message being that TIDAL was the first and only music streaming service to be “artist-owned” and approved. Many other artists, and consumers alike, caught on to the marketing campaign and criticized it as being rather disingenuous. TIDAL currently sits at an estimated 580,000 paying users as of March 2015, and the service has seemingly yet to catch on with the public; all the while, executives and other high-profile employees are leaving their positions, and the service has been deemed a flop. All of this doom and gloom doesn’t mean that the service is without its merits, however.
TIDAL offers two subscription tiers: TIDAL Premium ($9.99 per month), and TIDAL HIFI ($19.99 per month). Both tiers offer the same 50% educational discount for eligible college students, and in response to both Apple’s and Spotify’s family plans, now offer family plan pricing at a discount of 50% per additional subscription under a main TIDAL subscription. Unlike Spotify, both tiers offer the same fundamental features and functionality, including unlimited, ad-free streaming of TIDAL’s entire catalog of over 30 million tracks and 75,000 music videos, curated editorials, and offline playback for mobile devices (PC and Mac offline mode is currently in the works). The only difference between the two tiers is the quality of the stream: Premium offers a maximum quality of 320 kbps in AAC format, while HiFi offers streaming of CD-quality, lossless music in FLAC format. We’re going to explain the differences and possible advantages of lossless format music in a future article, but if you consider yourself a music aficionado, this type of quality in a streaming service could be something that is desired, and with the exception of the Deezer Elite service on Sonos hardware, it is the only music streaming service to offer CD-quality streaming in the United States.
In addition, TIDAL also offers features to aid in music discovery, although users expecting something akin to Spotify’s countless features should curb their expectations. ‘TIDAL Discovery’ is an entire section dedicated to displaying and promoting unsigned and independent artists. ‘TIDAL Rising’ promotes artists that have some type of local or regional fan base, in an effort to expose them to different regions. TIDAL also offers curated playlists, offering tracks for various daily activities, moods, and events, and you can also browse recommendations based around genre or a specific artist. You can add specific artists, albums, tracks, and playlists to a ‘My Music’ list, and all content can be downloaded for offline playback on mobile devices.
Pandora Internet Radio forgoes the flashy interfaces, large catalogs, and social media integrations of the other services in favor of simple, tailored internet radio stations calculated by precise mathematical and scientific formulas. It is powered by the Music Genome Project, a 10 year analysis of music that seeks to capture and interpret distinct musical characteristics of a track, and apply them to others in hopes of predicting the essence of a person’s musical taste. A user very simply types in an artist, composer, or genre, and Pandora will automatically create a radio station based around what the Music Genome Project predicts as being similarly pleasing to a listener’s ear. Rating songs with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down further refines the station. There are two access tiers to Pandora: Pandora (free) and Pandora One ($4.99 per month).
The free tier of Pandora is ad-supported, and limited to 64 kbps in AAC+ format on the web and mobile, while in-home devices stream at 128 kbps AAC. Users are limited to 6 skips per hour per station, and a total of 24 skips per day across all stations, where a skip could be a skipped song, a thumbs-down rating, or choosing the “I’m tired of this track” to remove a specific track from the station.
Pandora One is free of ads, and is limited to 192 kbps quality in AAC format on the web, but retains the same 64 kbps quality on mobile. Users are limited to 30 combined skips per day, in addition to the same 6 skips per hour per station.
Along with Pandora, Rhapsody is one of the oldest music streaming services, and was the first to offer an on-demand music subscription service that provides unlimited access to a large library for a flat monthly fee. There are currently two offered tiers: Rhapsody unRadio ($4.99 per month) and Rhapsody Premier ($9.99 per month). Also offered is a Premier family plan, starting at $14.99 per month for two users.
Rhapsody unRadio could be categorized as a direct competitor to Pandora One. It is an ad-free, personalized internet radio service that does away with many of the restrictions of Pandora One, while adding features not available on competitor service. There is no skip limit, you can save up to 25 favorite songs for on-demand access and offline playback, and the music catalog is quite a bit larger (32 million tracks, compared to 1 million on Pandora). Audio quality is limited to 320 kbps in AAC format with the Rhapsody Music Player on mobile, and listening is available on mobile and the web.
Rhapsody Premier is ad-free, unlimited, on-demand access to the complete Rhapsody catalog, allowing users to download any song, album, or playlist for use on mobile, web, and up to 3 home audio devices. Audio quality is limited to the same 320 kbps in AAC format, and users also get access to the same personalized internet radio station functionality that comes with the unRadio service.
The only service on this list to only offer a completely free tier of service, iHeartRadio is an ad-supported internet radio platform owned by Clear Channel Communications that offers access to 20 million songs from more than 1,500 live radio stations aggregated from iHeartMedia and other partners across the United States. The service combines a music streaming catalog with internet radio to create user-customized stations, personalized from an artist you select and similar music. Once a station is created, a user can set a custom ‘Discover Tuner’ to find artists that are familiar, less familiar, or mixed. This is in addition to the typical Like/Dislike rating controls which work on both live and customized stations to either expand or reduce the frequency that song is played or remove it completely from rotation, respectively.
Streaming quality is limited to 128 kbps in MP3 format, and skips are limited to 6 per hour per station and fifteen per day across all stations. Like/Dislike choices cannot be undone, and a user cannot rewind, fast-forward, or record tracks. iHeartRadio supports casting via Chromecast and the Xbox app, but only on stations that are owned by iHeartMedia.
All of the streaming services listed here offer users multiple and varied ways to consume music, and as such, your own personal music listening habits should dictate which service you opt-in to. A person who isn’t very fussy with selection, doesn’t mind ad interruptions, or wants to discover new music with very little operation required might opt for one of the cheaper or even completely free services, such as iHeartRadio, Pandora, or Rhapsody unRadio. A person who wants to interact with music discovery tools in many different and unique ways, have access to a vast catalog, or turn their music listening experience into a completely social activity might want to use Spotify.
If you still purchase physical media, but would like some additional digital music benefits attached to your purchases, Amazon Music and its AutoRip functionality and Prime Streaming/Cloud Library services might be perfect for you. Google Play Music is great, and almost necessary to try, if you already have a large digital music library and want to stream those tracks for free, and the All Access pass could serve to fill up the blanks. And someone who wouldn’t mind paying a bit extra for human-curated playlists and editorials, along with the best streaming audio quality possible might choose TIDAL’s HiFi tier. We already know that a user who is fully involved in Apple’s ecosystem would likely choose Apple Music for the convenience factor alone, but the benefits of Apple Music to Android users, if any, will become known closer to launch.
Which music streaming service do you use, if any? Do you have anything to add about these services, or did we not list your favorite? Please let us know in the comments below!