It seems like over the past year, streaming services have become a dime a dozen, with big names like Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, and Tim Cook all trying their hand at dethroning the current king of “all-you-can-eat” music mayhem, Spotify. With so many sub-par streamers flooding the market, how can you know which will get you the best bang (and bandwidth) for your buck?
When you think of music streaming, whether you’ve been following these apps for years or just jumping on board, the first service that probably comes to mind is Spotify. The service has become so inseparable from the idea of monthly subscribed music streaming, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t use either it or Pandora as their primary source of auditory assault on a daily basis.
Spotify has dominated the streaming space for a number of years now and, as such, has drawn its fair share of controversy from both the record labels and musicians alike. Accusations of everything from dreadfully low rates for per-stream payouts to unfairly featuring specific artists over others have plagued the Swedish-based company since it first launched worldwide in 2011. Since then, Spotify has surged in popularity and claims an impressive roster of 60 million users around the globe listening to its library of 30 million+ songs that grows larger by the day.
But, despite its reputation, aside from Taylor Swift and a few select cuts from the Beatles, Spotify has still managed to maintain a good relationship with almost every major and indie artist on its service without an overwhelming number of complaints. Its popularity continues to grow on a year-over-year basis (even if profits continue to elude the company), while more and more independent singers and songwriters are lining up to be a part of an ecosystem which actively and often looks to feature smaller artists on playlists that are normally populated by big name acts exclusively.
If you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck, at $9.99 monthly, Spotify is going to be your best bet (at least until Apple Music releases at the end of this month, more on that later).
Oh Tidal. You tried so hard to change the way we did things, and while your ambition was admirable, your overblown marketing campaign and out-of-touch approach to changing how we all streamed our favorite songs was anything but.
Owned and operated by big name acts like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and Madonna, the service rode on the laurels of its “artist-owned, artists-first” model that was a refreshing take on an industry that had slowly been inching toward a mentality of putting business profits ahead of artist well-being. Besides being the best choice for anyone who wants to support their favorite musicians, the one glaring advantage that Tidal holds over its domineering competition is the inclusion of lossless streaming to desktop devices. For true audiophiles, paying just $19.99 a month for a massive library of FLAC audio files is just about as good a deal as you’ll find anywhere.
Unfortunately for Tidal, the number of scrutinizing headphone-aficionados out there who are willing to switch from Spotify isn’t exactly enough to support an entire business model, and the streaming service has struggled to find its footing ever since it first went live in March. Since then, the service has only mustered together a measly 770,000 users, though Jay says he’s not worried, and that his company is “in it for the long haul.”
Even in the face of those poor numbers, for our dollar if you’re a stickler for sound quality, you aren’t going to find anything out there that matches the hi-fi experience of Tidal’s streaming library, however limited it may be. Tidal also features a regular streaming service for $9.99 a month with no hi-fidelity audio, however at this cost tier you’re better off going with Spotify, or our next contender below.
Google Play Music (All Access)
Right from the start of diving into Google Play’s All Access Music service, you’ll notice that many of its core features are nearly identical to Spotify in a litany of ways – but that’s not a bad thing.
You can easily make playlists, browse the playlists of others, follow your favorite artists, and stream all the songs your ears can handle for just $9.99 a month. Music quality ramps up to a respectable 320 kbps, and through and through, the service carried many, if not all, of all the artists you could want out of a Netflix-style smorgasbord of sound. The apps are easy to use and available universally both on Android’s Google Play and Apple’s iTunes App Store.
Better still, you can even automatically import all your iTunes music right into the All Access cloud library, so in case you can’t find something you want to listen to through the All Access search function, you can simply purchase it in iTunes, or import over purchases you’ve made in the past and continue jamming out without skipping a beat.
To be clear, Google’s All Access shouldn’t be confused with the vanilla Google Music, which, like iTunes, will still allow you to purchase individual songs or entire albums to download and keep for your own, no subscription required.
Long-rumored and recently launched, the Apple Music service is a music streaming suite of apps and desktop software that, much like the rest of the options on this list, lets you freely gorge on as many tunes as you can handle for a set fee each month. To gain access to the full library of tunes that Apple has in its archive, you can expect to shell out $9.99 per month, per account, or if you want to bump things up to a family plan, $14.99 for six accounts at once.
Apple has attempted to advertise its new ‘Connect’ radio service as a revolutionary way for artists to connect with their fans in realtime, though it conveniently ignores that Spotify’s ‘Follow’ feature has had the same customization and flexibility since its UI overhaul around the tail end of 2013. That said, Apple Music does have a few slight advantages over the competition, though for the most part, it seems only the hardcore streaming enthusiasts might be able to tell the difference.
Of particular note is the Beats 1 radio network. Broadcasting from major hubs like New York, London, and LA, Beats 1 features DJs, artist interviews, as well as many of the same segments you’d expect from a real radio station. Only Apple Music subscribers are able to tune in, making the exclusive club an enticing place to be for users who want to feel like their service is actually alive, rather than just a static library of tracks.
Even though the service is only in its infancy, it has the unique benefit of allowing you to combine your libraries with streaming content, as well as any music you buy through the iTunes store. Want to put the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the same playlist? Simply purchase the Beatles tracks (or full albums) you want to listen to, and port them into a playlist filled with songs off the Stones streaming discography. Combine this with iTunes Match, and you’re ready to stream any song, any time, anywhere on all your favorite iOS devices.
Apple Music is just barely passing the one month mark past its debut, so it’s difficult to say whether it will dominate in similar fashion as the iPod or iPhone did before it. There were plenty of ways to download music before iTunes came along, but none of the other services did it quite as well or with as much polish as Apple’s eventual record distribution juggernaut eventually would. The company is always full of surprises, and though they may be a few years late into the streaming game, it wouldn’t be the first time they came in and changed the way we did things without us even realizing it.
So whichever avenue you decide to travel down, whether it’s Tidal’s crisply clean audio, Spotify’s massive library of songs, or Google Play’s respectable roster of new and emerging artists, it’s clear that there’s never been a better time in history to be a music junkie.
Whether Apple Music will live up to the promises set out by Tim Cook and Co. still remains to be seen, but we’re still optimistic that no matter who triumphs in the coming competition between these behemoths of brands, in the end, the consumer will still win out the most.