Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal. Unless you still purchase music exclusively at a local record shop (it’s okay, I do too), you’ve probably heard these names mentioned more than a few times on the web. For the uninitiated, these subscription services work not unlike Netflix or HBO Go; each offer a vast library of content, accessible wherever there’s an internet connection, for a small monthly fee (usually around 10 USD). Other than letting customers browse at will through an ever-growing collection of music, most services feature unique, editorial content like professionally curated playlists to fit listeners’ moods, while others might offer live streams of exclusive radio content. Sounds great, right?
The only problem is deciding which service is right for you. Being the wonderful people we are here at IHC, we’ve decided to give you the streaming rundown by testing each platform and highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each, to determine which one will be music to your ears (and more importantly, your wallet.)
And wait, what’s that? You want me to ditch the companies that didn’t make the short list, for brevity’s sake? Certainly. In this article, the only music subscription services discussed will be the this year’s “big four”: Apple Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, and Tidal, with each receiving an overall grade of quality because your human brain just loves to categorize shit.
What it is: Founded nine years ago in Stockholm, Sweden, Spotify slowly but surely became the music giant that we now know it to be. Originally available only to those living in Europe, Americans like myself had to use web proxies to sign up for the service with fake European email accounts. Since opening its doors to Americans in 2011, the little green giant has taken over the music biz, granting listeners access to new albums the same day as their release, allowing for unlimited self-made playlists and even hosting several “Spotify Sessions,” intimate studio performances available exclusively through the app. Like other internet radio services, (i.e., Pandora), Spotify uses complex algorithms to craft unique “radio stations” for listeners; never-ending, shuffled playlists tailored to your own unique snowflake taste.
What makes it unique: For those of us less concerned with the actual music, and more with how others perceive us based on what we’re listening to, Spotify has a fully featured social aspect to its system. Users can choose to “share” songs, albums and playlists with Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr – as well as with each other, by sending music through Spotify’s unique music-messaging system. And what would social media be without the ability to creep on each other? You can see what your friends are listening to at the moment in the social feed, tucked nicely into the right-side of the screen. Just know that it works both ways, and that everyone can see you’ve been jamming out to Britney Spears for the past two hours (It was a #ThrowbackThursday playlist, I swear!).
All-in-all, Spotify is a fine, all-inclusive streaming package currently available for $9.99 per-month. However, if your broke ass is a college student with an .edu email account, you qualify for a discounted $5/month plan. The company also offers Spotify Free, a no-cost, “freemium” ad-supported model. So, if you’re really cheap, you can sign up for that – just keep in mind you’re only going to be accessing the curated content, radio stations, and something awful, called “Shuffle Play”.
Consensus: Still the same great service it’s been for years, plus the best social system around – but is that enough to keep subscribers from jumping ship and heading to Apple?
What it is: Not even a month old, Apple’s streaming service is already causing a stir. When the tech company announced they had purchased the rights to Dr. Dre’s intellectual property, Beats, and were ditching their previous streaming service, Apple Radio, people caught on pretty quickly: Apple was joining the subscription model game. What happened next was the birth of Apple Music, a synthesis of iTunes already massive music library and Spotify’s tried-and-true method of “social streaming.” Only this time, instead of just hooking listeners up with their friends, the app features a “Connect” section, allowing fans to, (you guessed it), connect to their favorite artists through exclusive Apple Music interviews, music videos and more. If you’ve already peeped Drake’s ridiculous, Connect-exclusive “Energy” music video, you already know what everyone is missing out on.
What makes it unique: Not convinced yet? Here’s the kicker: for the same price as Spotify (ten bucks a month), listeners are granted access to Beats 1 – an online, global radio stream that’s always on, broadcast live from Los Angeles, New York, and London. Playing 24/7 to anyone with a subscription and an iPhone, “the world’s local radio station” contains a variety of shows, featuring every genre you can think of, plus rare, on-air artist interviews. Apple even shelled out the cash to buy BBC Radio 1 host Zane Lowe out of his contract, and somehow managed to sign Disclosure, Drake and Dr. Dre on (among others), all as hosts of their own weekly shows. If all goes according to plan, Beats 1 could be Apple Music’s saving grace, setting the service apart from its competition, and ushering in a new generation of “radio” listeners. If you’re still on the fence about whether to try the Kool-Aid or not, don’t fret: Apple Music is available for free for the first three months – all you need is an iCloud account and the latest version of iOS.
Consensus: The entire iTunes library at your fingertips, plus the awesome Beats 1 Radio.
What it is: If you have an Android phone, or you just don’t care to listen to the radio, Google Play Music may be the service for you. Originally billed as an extension of Android’s app store, the platform has evolved into its own, separate entity, and now even iOS users can get in on the fun. On the surface, Google Play is your typical streaming service, complete with mood playlists, algorithm-based artist “stations” and user-outfitted music recommendations. Keep in mind: the NSA knows not only where you are based on your GPS location, but also what mood you’re in, based on your selection of the “Crying On My Keyboards Radio” station.
The base membership is free, and ad-supported, but a paid version is also available, (the tongue-twistingly titled Google Play Music All Access). For $9.99/month, it offers all the standard streaming amenities mentioned above, save for a social component. Sounds great, but to truly understand what separates Google Play Music from the rest, we need to take a look under the hood.
What makes it unique: Upon downloading the Google Play “Music Manager” app on your personal computer, you are guided by a wizard to upload your entire iTunes collection to the Google cloud, free-of-charge. Let the little program do its job overnight, (it’s going to suck some RAM), and by the time you wake up the next day, your whole life’s savings of digital music will be available to take with you, wherever you go, on iOS and Android, as well as any halfway decent web browser. Your first 50,000 songs are free (after that, you’re going to need to start buying Google Drive space) – and, yes, this is The Cloud we’re talking about, so depending on your personal cellular data plan, you may need to limit your consumption while on the ole LTE. Fortunately, you can download your favorite albums and songs for offline-use, in case your sister uses up all your data Snapchatting her high school friends I’M NOT KIDDING SARAH, I HAVE LIKE, NO GB.
Consensus: Innovative library management coupled with global cloud support and curated content.
What it is: Last but not least is Tidal, the new $20/month hi-fi service from Jay Z. Okay, maybe it deserves to be last, as it’s not going to be around much longer. Hear me out: Tidal is a fine idea, but will ultimately self-destruct. The second youngest of the music streaming family, Tidal was launched by the Swedish tech company, Aspiro, in 2014. The service catered to the audiophile crowd, touting lossless file compression and high definition music videos, with curated editorial to boot. Eventually exclusive musical content, available only to Tidal users, would be made available through the app. But wait – it ain’t all Peaches & Cream.
Why it’s struggling: It wasn’t until March of this year that the shit started to hit the fan, when Jay Z bought the business. Mr. Carter allowed himself to reintroduce Tidal as the first artist-owned streaming service, designed to give musicians a “fairer shake” of the royalties paid out by music providers. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem with Tidal: most music consumers don’t really care how much of a cut bands receive from streaming, and to top it off, Jay’s team sure-as-hell picked some bad artists to try and convert the masses. Remember the weird-as-heck press conference the company held right before launch? – the one where sixteen millionaires stood on-stage to remind us that they needed more equity of each song played?
That public perception of greed has plagued Tidal since day one. But, the problems don’t stop there: with Twitter users like this guy pointing out that some of the aspects aimed at benefiting artists could actual hurt them. Jay Z has since responded to the criticism with some much needed #TidalFacts about the status of the company moving forward, but even he doesn’t sound convinced.
Consensus: Standard streaming service whose only defining features are some exclusive songs and an expensive hi-fi plan.
In case you already lost track of the score, our money is on Apple Music becoming the best streaming service available. The interesting Connect option, the biggest online library around, and Beats 1 Radio – all for free for three months – make the fruity service the best bang-for-your-buck, digitally speaking. Don’t freak out if you don’t have an iPhone; Apple Music will be available to Android users by the end of the year.
Oh, and to those of you who already signed up for Tidal (I could slap you), you might want to go ahead and cancel your memberships – Apple and Spotify’s discounted introductory packages won’t last forever, and neither will your shitty subscription service.