Spotify is currently the best option available for an on-demand streaming music service. It has the features, the users, and the catalog to back up that claim.
It’s a hard thing to define exactly, but in 2014, streaming music was still a novelty. Now that Apple has debuted Apple Music, it’s safe to say the age of streaming music is finally here.
There’s a small chance on-demand streaming music won’t ever catch on with the mainstream population — that the monthly costs will be too preventative in some way — but, for better or worse, this is streaming music’s time in the spotlight.
Nearly every top technology company has an offering in this space, and they all vary slightly from each other in features and cost. Some music streaming services are free and thus don’t require as much commitment — for example, SoundCloud or Amazon Music (for Prime subscribers).
There’s also Apple Music and Google All Access, which are paid choices and want to be your only option. They try to do it all with storage of personal music in an online locker, as well as some form of Internet radio, with both complimenting an on-demand song selection.
Then there’s Spotify, which rides the line of paid and free and can be used as haphazardly as you’d like. Because Spotify restricts full access for mobile usage, it’s hard to consider it a free option for those interested in truly on-demand music streaming, but it might suffice in a pinch — or to test the waters.
These different pricing tiers make it a little tricky to select only one option for all users interested in the best streaming music solution. We’re still going to try to help you narrow the selection down as best as possible and highlight services with great free features to help supplement paid ones.
A note to readers: The streaming music space is increasingly volatile. There are constantly new features being released and there will inevitably be service consolidation sooner or later. A small part of recommending a music service, similar to the case with a photo service, is also to limit the risk of needing to switch to a different service because of acquisition or loss of funding.
The pick: Spotify
If you’ve never subscribed to or used an on-demand streaming music service, our recommendation is Spotify.
Spotify is the go-to choice right now because it has nearly every feature other services have, it has the most users (your friends,) plus it’s gotten really good at what it does.
Apple Music is a very close second and is extremely promising, but lacks some features and has some software bugs out of the gate.
Not only is Spotify the best option, but it’s the service least likely to call it quits on music anytime soon. You may want to switch at some point, but it shouldn’t be because you’re forced to change music services.
Spotify has a free tier that makes it easy to jump in and try it. Spotify has also been running a promotion that will give you three months of premium service for $0.99.
Who is it for? Spotify is taking the Netflix approach and tries tobe available on whatever platform you use — even the web to some extent. It will most likely remain the default choice for anyone not quite sure what they specifically want to get out of their streaming music service.
For those reasons, Spotify is the streaming music service to beat. It’s the company betting on streaming music for survival, rather than a value-add proposition. Spotify’s also been doing this for more than 8 years, trying to bring free and paid streaming music to the masses.
You won’t find Taylor Swift’s music on Spotify, but you will find nearly every other artist that’s available to stream on all the other services. Plus, like each service, it has its own set of limited exclusives and Spotify Sessions for certain artists recording versions for the company.
Spotify offers on-demand streaming music, algorithmic Internet radio, and user-created playlists, among other features. Spotify’s radio service may pale in comparison to Apple’s celebrity-laden DJs, and has never really been championed by anyone, but it will keep music flowing if that’s what you need. If you are interested in manually digging in and discovering new music, you can search based on mood, new releases, and recommendations based on your listening history.
If you’re less interested in doing the work, Spotify now features a personal “Discover Weekly” playlist updated for each user every week. The Discover Weekly playlist has been widely praised for its song selections, despite being powered by an algorithm.
Since most of the top-tier music services have a roughly equal catalog of music to choose from, Spotify’s main advantage is its brand recognition and large user base. However, if you manage to discover new music, sharing it still remains a pain. Since Spotify has a free tier that is currently used by the most people (75 million worldwide as of June 2015), sharing a Spotify link has the best results. The company’s embeddable playlists remain as frustrating as Adobe’s Flash, but the communal aspect Spotify holds is nothing to sneeze at.
Spotify is available for free (with ads) on the desktop, or for $9.99/month for the ad-free version. If you don’t pay, you’ll gets ads on mobile as well, with the additional penalty of having albums play their tracks out of order. The Spotify Family Plan includes up to six individual Spotify Premium accounts for only $14.99 a month.
Spotify’s desktop experience isn’t a shining example of how to build an app. The design is horrendous, the layout is clunky, and the app doesn’t have great performance. Like iTunes, it is what it is and if you want to listen on the desktop, you’re pretty much stuck with it. The web version requires Flash, so that’s a non-starter for many users.
Spotify on mobile is little different story. The Android and iOS versions are decent. While I have some minor complaints about the layout and colors, it works fine.
Spotify also has an extensive relationship with third-party developers. This means that lots of apps can use, or might need, a Spotify premium account to do cool things with the service’s catalog of music. For example, Pacemaker is a fun DJ app that lets you remix any song in Spotify’s collection if you’re a paying subscriber.
This type of support may or may not seem like a big deal in theory, but it’s kind of like the iOS and Android app situation. After a while, all of the buzz of apps being released on iOS first generates a reason to consider switching.
Sonos support is another reason to keep paying the monthly Spotify fee. It’s great to have unlimited music access on your phone or computer, but having it on high quality wireless speakers in your home is amazing.
Spotify has some of its own quirks and issues, like the fact that you can currently only add 10,000 songs or albums to your library before it will start rejecting new additions. This limitation has been known for awhile, but as of right now has yet to be changed.
Spotify has been around a lot longer though and it’s had time to address any critical flaws it once had.
Other paid options
Who is it for? The Apple enthusiast with a Mac, iPhone, and iPad.
Apple Music is new and fresh for the long-time music-loving company, but it’s still incomplete. All the pillars of its tenure are in place, but lots of the minor details are ripe to be updated and changed as an evolving product.
One example of this is in the mobile iTunes app. Album artwork, which is displayed more prominently, allows you to scroll these sections left to right to display more selections. Inside the Apple Music app, however, there’s similarly-sized album artwork displayed, but this doesn’t scroll left and right to show more selections, which is inconsistent and can be confusing.
Another crazy UI example is finding music you’ve made available offline. For a while, the best method I found was to switch my phone into airplane mode to find offline music, but if you go to the My Music section of the iOS app, tap the word Artists below Recently Added, then you’ll see a toggle at the very bottom that will only show music stored on your device. Even weirder is that even when I show only offline music, albums I’ve downloaded will still say “Make Available Offline” in its options.
Apple Music’s main tentpole features are Beats 1 Internet radio, its on-demand streaming music, and Connect for a direct artist feed.
There’s no free tier; it costs $9.99/month for access to on-demand music streaming or $14.99/month for a 6-person family plan. Apple currently offers a three-month free trial which should be ample time to figure out if Apple Music works well for you. There’s also a discount available to college students.
Beats 1 is Apple’s second foray into Internet radio — its first being iTunes Radio — and is much more thought out and deliberate. Instead of going further down the algorithmic path, the company is putting more of its trust in human personalities and curation. When push comes to shove, Beats 1 is more of an experience than pure discovery tool. It’s traditional radio over the Internet. Beats 1 is comfortable telling listeners what it thinks they should listen to — instead of Pandora’s “everyone is unique” model.
That might be a risky bet if done half-hearted, but with proven talent like Zane Lowe and tons of artist DJs like Elton John and St. Vincent, Apple is going all-in with its version of Internet radio, and I think it pays off. It’s a communal audio experience that’s always available and seems to be better than worse for most people tuning in.
Connect is the feature that allows verified artists to post news, songs, pictures, and videos directly to fans. After a few months, Connect is lackluster at best. I’ve managed to discover a few interesting songs and find out that MuteMath was releasing a new album later this year, but it’s not being utilized to its potential yet, which means it currently fails. I can see a future where Connected is used to offer merchandise and concert tickets, but this piece hasn’t fallen into place yet.
Apple Music Apps
Looking at the implementation, there are some parts of Apple Music that leave a lot to be desired. Things like the on-boarding instructions being confusing, or tacking Apple Music onto iTunes definitely causes reason for pause, but I don’t think they’re deal breakers.
Zooming out, having a universal music library that’s mixed with store-bought music and “rented” music you add to your library is great. It shows the benefits of streaming music people have been raving about since the days Rhapsody pioneered the space.
The iOS version of Apple Music is actually one of the reasons I’m so excited about the service. I love the For You section and its dedicated spot for new music. The personalized For You tab has been nothing but spot on with its unique recommendations. Plus, the New tab is a great way to find the latest songs and albums that people are most likely talking about.
The curated playlists are brilliant. They live throughout the app in the ‘New’ and ‘For You’ sections and are a perfect argument for why humans should be hand picking music — because they get context and circumstance.
On the Mac, Apple Music (through iTunes) is nothing short of frustrating and confusing. We can only hope that there’s a dedicated Apple Music app coming for the Mac.
Apple Music Problems?
For the most part, early adopters have been pleased with Beats 1 and Apple Music. However, there’s also been quite a bit of criticism dished out. Everything from the service (in combination with iTunes Match) losing local songs files to not making Apple Music its own dedicated app instead of combining it with iTunes. These are all valid, and in the case of purchased songs being lost, unacceptable.
The people that have had problems have been vocal about it, but these issues overall don’t seem to affect most people. I’ve been a long-time iTunes Match user and haven’t noticed any issues with my personal music library. It’s something to be aware of, but it’s also likely that these issues will get worked out quietly behind the scenes.
Who is it for? Google Music makes the most sense for the dedicated Android user, but it may be the sleeper service that just can’t get the recognition it deserves.
This question could backfire, but, when was the last time you heard an artist, record label, or random person on Twitter mention Google Play Music All Access? Part of the problem has to be the name, but Google’s problem in the music space is brand awareness. I know people use the service, but not nearly enough.
Google Music — what I’m going to refer to it as — is one of the most interesting music services available right now. It offers free cloud storage for your personal library so you can upload ripped or purchased music and stream it back anywhere — at no cost. This is Google’s equivalent of iTunes Match. As an added benefit, even if you don’t subscribe to Google Music’s on-demand features (which run $9.99/month), you could still use this for your personal music and a different streaming service to have unlimited access to all the latest songs.
Its Internet radio is a cut above the rest because of its addition of Songza, which is the music service that recommended music based on circumstances like mood, time of day, or event, rather than just by genre.
One of the areas Google Music does suffer is in the playlist category. The service has playlists, of course, but they aren’t present throughout the on-demand interface. You can create your own, but they are second-class citizens to the radio function.
Another interesting choice is the lack of sharing buttons throughout the interface. If you drill down to a song’s landing page in the mobile app, you can find a way that offers sharing, but the quick links (represented by …) mostly point toward starting radio listening. Even on the web, Google Music’s main “app,” sharing is not emphasized with only “get link” and “Google+” as the options. For most people, this doesn’t offer the sharing methods they typically use.
This could be a big reason for the lack of people talking about the service and sharing links to songs. If sharing was easier, I think the service would gain more awareness.
Google Music Apps
Google Music on mobile (iOS and Android) is a joy to use. The company’s material design language is perfectly suited and all the features are easy to find and use. The problem is that features like playlists and sharing don’t seem to be a priority for Google.
Mobile is not Google Music’s problem; the biggest concern is the main web app. It appears to be a scaled up version of the mobile experience, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, but requires Flash, which will turn many users off.
One of the coolest features is probably using Google Music’s Android app with a Sonos speaker. You can play music on the speaker system outside of its first-party app, acting sort of like Bluetooth or AirPlay — though its neither of those. You can use the Google Music app to control the Sonos speakers, so for those that don’t like the Sonos app, it becomes a compelling feature.
Google Music Issues?
Google Music gets the big picture right, but it’s the finer details where the music service gets frustrating beyond casual use. One recent issue was with an update to its mobile app which seems to have deleted some user’s downloaded music, according to App Store reviews. Another update that began highlighting radio over things like playlists also caused user backlash, but that’s more of a calculated move forward.
Amazon Prime is a, mostly, stealth addition to services available to Prime subscribers. Since it’s not a service worth $99/year, it’s ostensively a free service for Amazon devotees.
Amazon leveraged deals to include the free music service, but to get that, it settled for a lot of back catalog rather than the newer popular music selections. This shouldn’t stop you from checking it out, but it might prevent regular or heavy usage.
The Prime Music app on iOS has evolved and is quite good. One of the killer features is lyrics that sync to the music. The app design is easy to use and perfect for those looking for familiar music. The main problem with Amazon Prime happens to be by design — the catalog is random and comparably sparse.
SoundCloud is an interesting entry in the music listening space. You can compare it to YouTube as the audio equivalent. YouTube will host your video and make it easy to share — SoundCloud does that for music, podcasts, and other audio.
Because SoundCloud is the audio hosting solution, the amount of available songs varies wildly and usually includes some illegally uploaded tracks. The amount of illegal music has significantly decreased over the years, however, and lots of artists and records have gotten onboard with putting at least a few songs on the service.
One of SoundCloud’s main features has been the visible waveform and the ability to comment on specific sections of the song. The comments are usually annoying, but the company has definitely built a brand around the waveform.
SoundCloud’s iOS app can be frustratingly minimal, but it’s still beautiful. The way it feels like you’re sliding the background to scroll through a track instead of the track position marker, exemplifies the app’s appeal.
SoundCloud may not yet be a Spotify competitor (there’s long been rumors of it being a formal on-demand service), but it’s a convenient way to dive into the underground music scene. It’s big for certain genres of music, like EDM, because of its independent nature.
There are a lot of different choices if the other mentioned services don’t scratch your itch. For example, Microsoft has Groove Music which was previously named Xbox Music. It works well if you live in the Microsoft ecosystem, but even then it’s hard to recommend to Windows lovers over Spotify.
Tidal will be an interesting case-study one day. The service, which is backed by lots of musical celebrities, is trying to be the artist-friendly music service. So far, it’s yet to really prove it can offer musicians much that other services can’t. The other differentiator is its high-resolution audio quality as an added top tier at $20/month.
As a competitor to Pandora, 8Tracks goes the other way and relies solely on user curation rather than computer algorithms. Users create playlists based on anything, and then those playlists are available for anyone to listen to.
Deezer has never really gained a U.S. audience the way it did overseas, but it still is worth considering if high-resolution audio is on your must-have list. Deezer partnered with Sonos to offer its high-quality audio, which makes sense because you need good speakers with which to listen.
We expect the music streaming scene to continue evolving every month, but for right now, Spotify is the best pick for most people.