The Dream of Music Streaming
We all dream of finding our favorite music whenever we want, wherever we are, and however we choose. We expect a fair price, that musicians are treated well, and great tools. How will this dream be achieved? Which one service can meet our expectations?
We are rather disappointed with Apple Music. Surprisingly it runs at a lower “bit rate” (which may affect sound quality) than Spotify: 256Kbps vs Spotify’s 320 Kbps. Why would Apple do that?
Spotify Has Become the Standard
For 2015 (and probably longer) the obvious leader is Spotify – and with good reason.
Spotify is cool.
No matter what platform you are on (Android, iOS, or Windows) you cannot go wrong with Spotify as your base. Spotify has the most intuitive look and feel, a great free level to start off with, a large catalog, and also has a higher quality stream (bit rate) than many music streaming companies. So for now start/stay with Spotify; let the market evolve, and then check-in every few months to see what is interesting and worth trying out. Rdio and Rhapsody are also good services to consider – we like what they offer, large catalogs, and they have good user interfaces.
Looking forward, in the future, HRA (High Resolution Audio) music is coming in a big way. Despite some bad press we think Tidal has real promise (higher quality, unique musician content, and they pay out the most to musicians of any service, on a per-stream basis). The terminology can be confusing; Tidal is Lossless CD-quality music and some call that HD (High Definition) Music. Tidal is not HRA; for true HRA music, which means ‘better than CD quality’, there are several services; checkout Pono – the sound quality is impressive, and their catalog is really growing. The bit-rate of CD’s was set long ago, before computers and media were as sophisticated as they are now; its not hard anymore to have a higher bit rate, which allows capture of more of the subtle details in music – and some HRA can even approach the quality of Vinyl.
Spotify has an amazing feature that will match the rate you are running, with a song that has the same rhythm; the same number of beats! That is impressive, and can help anyone who is into fitness. You don’t have to talk out loud (like with Siri) to make it happen, either.
Change Now… or Later?
For most people, it might be easier to just stay where you are right now.
If your current service gives you the music you like – if its working for you – then why change? Don’t get fooled by massive advertising. Music streaming is becoming a mature market so all of the services offer a reasonably good value. For many people, once you get skillful at navigating your current site, finding playlists, sharing your love of music with friends and so on, its just going to be easier to stay with what you know.
If you are going to switch, just switch to Spotify now – and then over time, try one of the HD music services.
Don’t abandon CD’s: if you stop buying albums, and use only streaming, then you are going to be paying for music for the rest of your life – don’t forget that! For your most favorite music buying albums still makes sense.
Just Getting Started? Do This:
- Signup for the best streaming deal right now: the free level of Spotify
- Keep buying Albums for your favorite artists
- Buy Download or CD? I prefer to buy the CD; you can use it in the car, and also RIP it to your computer. Use the FLAC format to preserve the full CD quality, which keeps the album information too. You can find free Ripping programs on Download.com. This plan gives you the best of all worlds.
- Experiment with HD music, like Pono, in your living room and with high-quality headphones.
Our Vision for Music Streaming
We have a vision of where music streaming is going in the future – this will include better and better curation, closer contact with artists, better discovery for new music and new artists, better payments to artists (so they keep producing), and more choice. It is likely that no one service will fit everyone’s needs and moods; you may find that several services are what work for you – one for playlists, perhaps another for curation that fits how you enjoy music.
Choice matters. A good example of that is XM in your car. You have a lot of channels to choose from; that is what makes it work. XM could have even more channels, where each genre had multiple flavors. Choice is key.
As music streaming evolves, with new services started and new features appearing, we will follow it all and teach you how to get the best value. Besides Spotify’s other advantages, if you want to upgrade to Spotify’s Premium level, right now its only 99 cents for 3 months. Hard to beat that, especially when you consider the overall quality of the service.
Pono has over 2 million songs now in HD format, which is more than I expected – they are starting to get some momentum. This is the wave of the future – so early adopters, take notice! The challenge for any higher quality music is this: it makes no difference if you play it back on phone speakers, laptop speakers, the average car speakers, and so on. To really hear the difference and make the extra cost worthwhile you need higher quality headphones or a good home audio setup. Many people are unaware of just how good music can sound in their living room.
If you care about music quality, HD music options are out there. Unfortunately, not from Apple, Google, or Amazon; for some reason the largest companies focus on small refinements – they don’t take on the risk of true innovation.
New Services are Launching
But new does not necessarily mean better.
Everyone now has curation, and everyone has playlists. You will see a lot of press and advertising about new services launching but truthfully, you probably don’t need them at this time. Right now, most streaming services have the same basic catalog (of 20 to 30 million songs). There does not appear to be any significant innovation out there in non-HD music right now beyond what a service like Spotify already has. Only Spotify seems to bring it all together in one cohesive package. The big question is, can anyone else do as well? Or even better?
Apple has entered the music streaming market, building off of its Beats acquisition, integration with Siri, a new radio station, and services for Android as well. It should be a solid service, basically similar to many other streaming sites.
In terms of quality, Apple Music tracks max out at 256Kbps verses the higher quality 320Kbps of Spotify. Its quite surprising that Apple would debut a service that runs at a lower quality. And note, even at 320Kbps you do not have HD music; so why would Apple debut a brand new service that runs at a lower quality level? What is the point, really?
So has Apple done enough to differentiate itself? There is no free level for people just starting out in music streaming; their music catalog is similar in size to others (meaning, not the largest), they are paying musicians a lower percentage than Spotify, and they have no HD music (like Pono). This makes Apple Music basically just another “me too” music streaming service. It is not yet available on Android, either; hopefully it will be. There will apparently be some ‘artist engagement’ but Tidal is likely to lead in that area. So basically, it is hard to see how this kind of offering will grow market share against Spotify.
If you are addicted to Siri, you might need the new service; no one else ‘needs’ it. Siri is nice, but you can find voice activation in Android too; Google Now also has some basic voice functionality. Amazon has a wireless speaker called Echo that has just been released for general sale that also have some voice command capability. Siri might be a little better but both Google Now and Echo will get better over time. This feature is likely to not matter; its not clear if people want to find music this way. If I am wearing my headphones and out in public, I do not want to be talking out loud, to my phone, over and over; I prefer to type, for privacy and for good manners. Siri is not perfect either – it can make mistakes – for example even during the big demo for Apple Music at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, Siri got it wrong. Right on stage!
In terms of musicians, Apple’s terms have upset some Indie record companies (see recent New York Times Article). Perhaps Apple got spoiled with the huge success of the iTunes download service. Will Apple be able to take market share away from Spotify and Pandora? Perhaps from Pandora, which is showing some age now – but taking on Spotify, Rdio, or Rhapsody Apple does not appear compelling enough for people to switch away.
What about Google? Google announced a new free music streaming service a few days ago, trying to beat out Apple’s thunder – but few people seem to care. It does not offer anything new; once again, better to just stick with Spotify. The main use of Google services seems to be Youtube, which has a lot of free music. Google will probably be a leader in song storage if that is important to you. Beyond that we don’t see anything compelling in music services from Google at this time. Part of Google’s problem, in our opinion, is they do not do enough marketing. Google has launched services in the past that failed – they launch but do not do enough traditional marketing to sell consumers on the value.
Higher Definition Music: HD & HRA
Tidal is the dark horse and the service to watch, we are getting more and more interested in Tidal. They suffered some bad press at launch; but that only means they are musicians first – and maybe that is a good thing. They have the most artist-focus of any service. Tidal claims to pay the highest payment (per stream) to artists of any service, higher even than Spotify – if that is true, then Tidal becomes more interesting to anyone who really cares about musicians. If Tidal had a free tier, to try things out (like most services do), we would be more strongly recommending it. Tidal does have a $10 tier, which is equivalent to the premium tier at many companies – and Tidal also claims it will have exclusive content that no other service will have – due to its strong artist relationships. They place more value on higher quality music which is a good thing – but its not actual HRA (High Resolution Audio); it is ‘lossless’, so what that means they do not use compression. Basically, listening to Tidal is identical to listing to the original music CD; that is called HD Music. They really ought to offer FLAC-based HRA music. The challenge for them is, their monthly cost is double of what the premium level is at most companies, and their catalog is a little smaller than some. Do you want to pay $20/mo for music when you can get almost the same qualityf at Spotify?
Above Tidal quality are some true HRA services. Historically this has never worked in the market and even now it will be a struggle – but the time is coming soon for this to work. One example is Pono Music, founded by Neil Young; we will do a detailed article soon on HRA music but for now, it is a small – but growing – market. The best audio format seems to be FLAC; it can run at CD-Quality (“Lossless”) but also can be used for higher-quality levels, at higher bit rates – true HRA music. FLAC takes less space than other HD/HRA formats and does not lose any album information like artist name and album name, like some formats do. In the past Apple did not support FLAC which is also of concern. FLAC seems to be the right way to go.
Spotify runs at a higher bit rate than Apple, Pandora or Rhapsody so once again, while not HD/HRA, we feel that Spotify is clearly the choice as it hits the sweet spot of the best overall combination of features. The more we learn about music streaming, the more problems we see with Pandora, unfortunately. To learn more about audio formats, CNET has a good article on FLAC Vs MP3.
Avoid Weaker Offerings
We recommend you avoid the weaker services. This includes those with a smaller catalog like ROK Music, and Amazon music. It also includes those with a cumbersome user interface, like Samsung MILK.
There are over 100 music streaming companies. Many of them are actually repackaged services. If you find a great deal, then go for it. But if you are serious about music, you probably want to avoid the smaller services – they will have weaker curation, fewer services, and no unique artist relationships.
In the past we have been fans of Pandora. In the first few years, Pandora had the best UI (User Interface) and just seemed comfortable and easy. But lately Pandora is showing its age. The website has not evolved much; go do a direct comparison of either the app or the website for Pandora and Spotify and you will see how much better Spotify is. Spotify appears to pay out more than Pandora to musicians, and Spotify runs at a higher bit rate ( = Higher Quality) than Pandora. Pandora also has one of the smallest catalogs. They are cheaper, for their paid tier; that seems to be their only advantage now. It would seem that Pandora is falling behind, and thus they are no longer on our favorites list.
Streaming is the New Radio
Traditional radio is similar to streaming; you do not own the songs. The web has an enormous number of ‘radio stations’ to choose from. Radio is attractive as a model for cars, where music streaming has had strong growth. Apple will be introducing a new radio station soon but its hard to see how just one station will get traction; radio stations each need a genre, and fans pick their station based on genre first – like Country, or Rap, or Alternative Rock. It does not seem that a single Apple radio station will make much difference.
XM is the leader in car streaming, and is available in the home as well on satellite receivers like DirectV. XM does a great job of having multiple streams, based on Genre; they have lots of channels and that means lots of choice. A Radio Station service I would love to see would be something like XM at a free level (with occasional short ads), with a paid tier that had the same diverse channel lineup but no commercials and live, human curation. Why isn’t Apple giving us that!
Some Companies are not as Artist Friendly
We think any streaming service, to succeed, must have good artist relationships – and that starts by caring about artists. Some companies just do not seem to “get it”.
Google for example has put strong pressure on Indie artists in the past (see this Slate Article), which makes you wonder if Google will use similar tactics in the future. For Google, it seems to be about money first.
Even Apple, which is coming very late to the streaming market, is reportedly paying out only 58% of its income from Indie artists; this is lower than Spotify (read more here). We have all seen how Apple treats Taylor Swift well, but every musician is important – including the Indie artists; not just the rich & famous ones. Spotify says it pays out about 70% of its income to artists; that is impressive – and Tidal claims to pay more, per song played, than anyone. So we see, once again, that Apple is not at the cutting edge.
Rhapsody also has a strong focus on being artist-friendly and a strong reputation.
Amazon is disappointing. Amazon includes its music streaming as part of Prime – which is a great deal, if you are already paying for Prime. Beyond that though. its hard to understand why anyone would get the Amazon music service. Amazon has a much smaller catalog than some of the other major music streaming companies, because they do not include Universal Music Group – the world’s largest label. Now, why would Amazon do that? It must surely be about money, what other reason could there be? So how can Amazon ever say they are artist-friendly if they do not fully support musicians being fairly paid? Amazon music is certainly not a compelling offer, when it has less choice. Spotify has more choice, more features, and other advantages.
Spotify is the best choice. Start with the free level and see if that meets your needs.
I see the other streaming services being niche-oriented: you might try Amazon music if you already have Prime, or you might try Apple Music if you are addicted to Siri. Otherwise Spotify is better.
HD/HRA music is cool, it costs a little more but is worth it if you have high-end headphones or a great sound system at home. Rdio and Rhapsody are also worth considering with good catalogs, curation, and a nice user interface.
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NOTE: This website is not associated with any music streaming service. We have not received any investment money from anyone and we are not obligated to any company in any way. In other words, we are completely independent, and any opinions expressed are entirely our own. Also, this market is undergoing rapid change; so, while we do try hard to be accurate, if you see anything that needs updating in our site, please send us an email.