Spotify, the streaming music service, made news this week when it gained 10 million users. As CDs aged and died, online music in the form of downloads and streaming grew up to take their place. There are several options available, either for free or for monthly fees that average about $10. Spotify offers paid listeners on-demand playback and offline listening, but so do Rdio, Slacker, Google Play All Access and Beats Music. Versus the main competition, reviewers scored Spotify in the middle of the group. Free features in general are rather limited unless a listener seeks out something more specialized like TuneIn world radio or Soma.fm which is dependent on user participation. For online radio with paid subscription options, the ability to download tracks is what separates services still battling to take market share from the dominant platform of the space, Pandora.
Spotify drew at least one criticism from Mobile Nations for choosing lime green as its main HUD color, but that shade hearkened back to the days of Limewire (the illegal music sharing site shut down in October 2010). Beats drew high marks for their dark backgrounds with high contrast hot pink accents. Rdio fell right in the middle, with straightforward design and simple coloring. Slacker started with a bright clear white background similar to what Rdio still uses, but both Slacker and Spotify have since changed their looks to something closer to Beats.
As for the music, Spotify has an exclusive deal with Led Zeppelin to stream their songs, which may draw fans of the band. They were the first of this group of online music providers to have stations that are movie and video game themed in addition to traditional main categories like Pop and Rock. They were also the first to host a Facebook tie-in feature. Connecting with Facebook not only lessens the annoyance of entering multiple data fields on initial sign-up, it allows users to view, mix and match playlists of friends that use the service. For audiophiles, they offer cross-fading and gapless playback at up to 320kbps to paid subscribers, a higher rate than Slacker, though the function does use a lot of data.
Music storage and download limits are where Spotify falls short. While other services that allow offline play grant users unlimited downloads, Spotify caps downloads at 10,000 between three devices. Reviewers point out that this may be fine if the main use is as a mobile app, but could be a problem if a person wants to use it as a tool to manage their main music collection. Google Play All Access excels in this area, not only allowing unlimited downloads to paid subscribers, but the also supporting uploads of 20,000 tracks to cloud storage, similar to iTunes functionality. If reviews were scored, Spotify lost this round versus the competition.
The company that dominates the online market with over 70 million users in December of 2013 and 8.9 percent of listeners as of March is Pandora. It is unlike the other services here in that they do not offer the ability to play tracks on-demand. Users can still create custom stations based on an artist, track or album, but the tracks played are random. Users can favorite or bookmark tracks, but they cannot play them whenever they want, let alone download them within the app for play them offline. What critics say separates them from the competition is their Music Genome Project. Trained music analysts with four-year music degrees define tracks based on scores within up to 450 musical characteristics. Listeners’ selections of either thumbs up or thumbs down on the randomly played tracks after the initial input train the station to play a given type of music based on shared musical characteristics between the songs. If users choose, they can view a break-down of a track into its individual parts, like heavy bass, syncopated rhythms or soulful female vocals.
While none of the services with download capability offer quite the same careful process applied by the Music Genome Project, a few reviewers placed Beats Music at the head of the pack when it came to music curation. The quality of the method and minds used to process and organize vast libraries of music determines what pre-made stations are available, as well as how quickly the service learns music preferences. One reviewer claimed that while Spotify was hit and miss, it only took two weeks for Beats Music to “get” him.
There are other options out there, like TuneIn that offers access to worldwide live radio or Soma.fm that is completely user driven and ad-free. PCMag, one of the dominant reviewers of personal electronics and apps chose Slacker as its favorite versus competition that included Spotify, because of its robust song library and well-rounded offerings of live radio and lifestyle content. However, the magazine recommended Spotify for those new to the online music scene or who specifically enjoy the ability to use friends’ playlists to make their own.
By Aliya Tyus-Barnwell