Battle of the On-Demand Music Services

Battle of the On-Demand Music Services

This is a fantastic time for music lovers. Music downloads no longer suffer from copy protection. Numerous sites and social tools have sprung up to help us discover and connect with talented artists. One of the most exciting developments has been the rise of subscription-based, on-demand music services. One low monthly or annual fee buys you access to a huge selection of music to listen to at any time. Heard a song from a new band you like and you want to hear more from them? Bam! Listen to all of their work right then and there without worrying about the recording industry suing you.  There are a number of these services to choose from, and in this post I'm going to help you decide which one to use.

Before I get into weighing the pros and cons of the different services, let me discuss the looming demise of music ownership.  When you actually buy a song or album, be it digitally or on CD or vinyl, you get to keep it and do pretty much whatever you like with it forever.  Even better, music purchased digitally from iTunes or Amazon can be downloaded again at any time at no extra charge, so if your hard drive fries and you don't have a backup, you're still covered.  Music ownership may falter, however, in the face of the all-you-can-eat services I'll detail below. The danger of this is nicely illustrated by the following cartoon (courtesy the gamer webcomic Penny Arcade):


music downloaded via these services is not yours and will disappear instantly the moment you stop paying.

Is this a bad thing? Well, that's up to you. In using these services you're basically paying the price of one album every month to have access to several million tracks. If you're a music lover on a budget, such a deal is very attractive indeed.  If you're a music collector, on the other hand, you'll want to think twice; your music is basically being held hostage by this monthly fee. A few other things to consider:

  • You have no control over which artists and albums these services license. Sure, they've got U2 now, but will they always?  It's not like they get to keep offering all this music in perpetuity with no renegotiation with the music labels and artists. There may be casualties down the line. 
  • You have no control over the quality of the music. I'm no audiophile, but if you are, I imagine on-demand music is anathema to your kind. At best, you'll get tracks at 320kbps, but if you enjoy lossless audio files, well, you'll want to take your business elsewhere. 
  • You have no control over future pricing. The average cost of these services is $9.99 per month. On my budget, that's fantastic. Still, I can't help but think that's an awfully low number even if we are talking about millions of paid subscribers; I would not be surprised to see prices go up in the future. Speaking of the future:
  • You have no control over the future of the service. Here today, gone tomorrow—that should be the motto of The Internet Business. Now, I don't know a whole lot about the music industry beyond that it's lawsuit-happy, but with all these services, well, it sort of feels like there's a bubble forming. Again, I might be completely wrong; do not accept my conjecture as Gospel.  But where technology is concerned, my brain usually operates two or three years out, and I would not be surprised if we see a collapse or at least a consolidation of on-demand music services.  

All right, I've played the devil's advocate. Now on to The Good Stuff! So, yes, there are a lot of these music services out there. For this blog, I narrowed my list down to those popular subscription services that throw the gates open to all their tracks all the time. Additionally, they must provide offline caching so you can listen on your mobile device without having to eat up your monthly data plan. This left out one big player: Pandora. I think Pandora is great, and they're a wonderful way to discover new music. You can pay them, but they still don't provide access to whatever track you want, whenever you want and this immediately disqualified them. This requirement on my part also takes the forthcoming iTunes Radio service out of the running. Gifted to iPhone and iPad users by Apple, the king of digital music, it still isn't on-demand, and it excludes any non-Apple mobile devices. That leaves the following services:

I may have let one or two others slip through the cracks, but these are the big boys. And, it should be noted, these are services currently available in the USA. If you happen to be reading this blog in another country, I cannot guarantee they will be available to you thanks to international licensing restrictions. These services have been gauged by the following:

  • Track Quantity - Just as it sounds, this is the overall number of tracks reported by each service. Not all tracks may be music when spoken word tracks such as stand-up comedy, a personal favorite of mine, is taken into account. Advertised numbers are obvious approximations, usually accurate only within a few thousand tracks. You should also take into account that content is being added all the time, while some may also be disappearing.
  • Platform Compatibility - Basically, where you can listen to your tracks. Web browser, Windows or Mac application, mobile app for iPhone/iPad (referred to from now on as iOS for the operating system they both run) or Android. Just how easy is this music to listen to on a given device?
  • Buyable Tracks - Does the service allow you to buy and keep the music you want to hang on to, even after you cancel your subscription?
  • On Demand Options - Referring to the ability to instantly call-up and listen to any artist, album or track you want, some services will let you do this on select devices, usually on a desktop/laptop computer, without paying them, though you can probably expect ads between tracks. Others, however, will only let you listen on-demand when you pay them, no matter what device you use.  
  • Audio Quality - Measured in kilobits per second, a higher number is indicative of higher-quality sound.  When streaming audio on-demand, maximum quality cannot be guaranteed thanks to variable network speeds; this is particularly true of streaming over mobile networks. The quality of the original source must also be taken into consideration. Audio recorded decades ago, however well-remastered, is still going to sound inferior to most audio recorded today, regardless of its kbps value.  
  • Discovery Options - It's not enough to simply provide access to music. These services need to help us find new music, or rather, new to us. Features like shareable playlists, custom radio stations, curated collections, and more are absolutely vital to these services' survival.
  • Social Network Integration - Which social networks can we share our playlists and listening habits on and use to discover our friends' favorite music?  
  • Offline Playback - Each of these services allows, with a subscription, caching of music so that it is available to listen to even when an Internet connection is not accessible. The question is, which devices are permitted to do this?
  • Maximum Number of Devices per Account - Due to licensing restrictions, it is challenging for these services to provide simultaneous streaming to multiple devices. Those that have managed to negotiate such a deal are still limited to a very small number. Why?  When you buy a subscription, you're essentially leasing a single copy of every song available through the service; simultaneous streaming is, in the eyes of the recording industry, tantamount to "owning" multiple copies of each of these songs, which would drastically increase pricing.
  • Sample without a credit card - Do you get a limited time trial before you buy?  If so, does it require a credit card?  If so, you'd have to be proactive in cancelling your account before the trail period ended. Thanks to advertising, most of these services allow free streaming on a computer without having to supply a credit card, allowing you a great opportunity sample their offerings before you give them any of your money.  
  • Extra Frills - Lots of these services let you stream to home theater equipment, like the Roku streaming video box, the Sonos sound system, video game consoles or Internet-connected "smart" HDTVs. Each service has a little bit of added functionality to lure you to its domain.  
  • Pricing - As I mentioned above, the average price of these services seems to be $9.99. Some offer lower prices for on-demand access from only one computer and no devices; others offer access via computer and mobile devices; and a few actually offer access on multiple computers and devices. Pay attention to exactly what you're paying for.  

 

Google Play

MOG

Rdio

Rhapsody

Slacker

Sony

Spotify

Track Quantity

18 million

16 million

20 million

16 million

13 million

18 million

20 million

Platform
Compatibility

Web player, Apps for iOS and Android

Web player, Apps for iOS and Android

Web player, Windows and Mac clients, Apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry

Web player, Windows client, Apps for iOS, Android, and Blackberry

Web player, Apps for iOS, Android, Blackberry, and Windows Phone

Web player, apps for iOS and Android

Windows and Mac clients, Apps for iOS and Android

Buyable Tracks

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

No

No

No

On Demand Options

Subscription only

Free Web player, subscription

Free Web player, subscription

Subscription only

Subscription only

Subscription only

PC or Mac client for free, subscription

Audio Quality

320kbps for purchased tracks, up to 320kbps streaming

Up to 320kbps

256kbps for purchased tracks, up to 256kbps streaming

256kbps for purchased tracks, up to 192kbps streaming

Up to 128kbps

Up to 320kbps

Up to 320kbps

Discovery Options

Custom stations, recommended tracks from Google, shared playlists on Google+

User playlists, editor’s picks

Follow professional music news sources (Rolling Stone, NPR, etc.)

Curated playlists, follow other subscribers

Custom stations, curated playlists, follow Facebook friends

Custom stations, follow friends on Facebook and Twitter

Follow other users’ playlists, follow friends on Facebook, apps built on top of Spotify framework (TuneWiki, Tunigo, etc), pair with last.fm

Social Network Integration

Google+

Facebook, Twitter

Facebook, Twitter

Facebook, Twitter, Google+

Facebook, Twitter

Facebook, Twitter

Facebook

Offline Playback

Android only

Android and iOS

All mobile apps

Windows client and mobile apps

All mobile apps

Mobile devices and Playstation Vita

Windows and Mac clients, mobile apps

Maximum No. of Devices per Account

10, but only 1 can stream music at a time

Unlimited, but only 1 can stream music at a time

Unlimited;

Middle tier: only 1 can stream music at a time

Multiple subscriptions can be bought together at discounted prices, each allowing an additional device to play simultaneously

Bottom tier subscription: only 1 device

Top tier subscription: 3 devices and 2 computers simultaneously

Unlimited, but only 1 can stream music at a time

Unlimited, but only 1 can stream music at a time

Unlimited, but only 1 can stream music at a time

Sample without Credit Card?

No

Yes:
Web player is always free.

7 day full trial for mobile apps

Yes, 7 day full trial for Web player and apps

Yes, 7 days full access

Unlimited access requires CC, Web player and apps always have free radio stations

30 second audio snippets on the Web only

Yes, full web and desktop player access

48 hour app trial

Extra Frills

Integration with Google services, upload up to 20,000 tracks for free to stream anywhere

Play on Roku, Sonos, and select LG smart TVs

Play on Roku, Sonos

Play on Logitech SmartRadio, Xbox 360, Sonos, Tivo, Ford SYNC, Vizio Smart TVs

Professionally curated stations, access to ABC news and ESPN

Play on Playstation 3 (and presumably Playstation 4), Playstation Vita, select Blu-ray players and Sony Bravia smart TVs

Play on Roku and Sonos, desktop client has a wide selection of built-in "apps" for discovering new music

Pricing

$9.99/mo

$4.99 or $9.99/mo

$4.99, $9.99, or $17.99/mo

$9.99 or $14.99/mo

$3.99 or $9.99/mo

$9.99/mo

$4.99 or $9.99/mo

One other factor to consider that can't be accurately represented on a table is the availability of your favorite artists, albums, and tracks.  With millions of tracks in question there is obviously a great deal of overlap between each service, but there are those groups and albums that slip through the cracks, some of them mainstream, others more fringe.  For instance, Metallica, one of my all-time favorite bands, is only available on Slacker and Spotify, while one of my favorite nerdcore groups, Supercommuter, is available on Google, MOG, Rhapsody, and Spotify, but only Spotify has both their albums. We've all got our favorties, so it's very important to investigate their availability before you hand over your credit card digits.  

None of these services is perfect, and I can't recommend one over the other, but I can give you my general impression of them:

  • Google Play Music All Access is the newest kid on the block, but it still has a lot of advantages: a large music library, integration with your existing Google account, and the ability to store roughly 20,000 of your own tracks online for free to stream anywhere, again for free (a service I make good use of, even if I'm not a subscriber). Their discovery options could use some work, and they need to find a way to integrate with Facebook, even if their own Google+ social network is in direct competition with them—too many people use Facebook for them to ignore it and hope to thrive.  
  • MOG's Web player and mobile apps are great. They make it easy to find new music and playlists no matter which device you use, their design is nice and clean, free of obtrusive ads.  They could be my service of choice if they weren't missing some of my favorite artists. 
  • Rdio's large track selection, the availability of bulk-rate subscriptions and apps for all the major mobile platforms—including Blackberry and Windows Phone, and the ability to follow professional music reviewers make it a serious contender for your dollars.  
  • Rhapsody is the old man of this group, having started up in 2001 when it was still owned by RealNetworks of "RealPlayer" infamy (seriously, if you're still using RealPlayer, stop, right now. There's no need for you to suffer its presence any longer!). I subscribed to Rhapsody for a while and didn't mind them, but I felt like their discovery tools were a bit lacking, and they didn't have as much stand-up comedy as I would have liked. It's a good enough service, but it doesn't do a lot to distinguish itself from the newer services.  
  • Slacker is my least favorite of all these services, on its own merits anyway (skip down to Sony to see what I mean). Their free radio site is plagued by the most obnoxious ads of any of its competitors, the site design is childish, and the music selection is the smallest of them alll. Like Rhapsody, it's not doing a whole lot to distinguish itself outside of its curated playlists, though you should give these a look, they might be enough to win you over.
  • Sony Music Unlimited should be used with caution.  They've got a large selection of tracks and their service integrates nicely with the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita, but Sony's customer devotion is questionable. Sony is well-despised by many of my tribe for failing to notify its users and the government when their Playstation Network (PSN) was hacked in 2011 with much of their users' data stolen.  PSN contained personal information (though, thankfully, not credit cards) in unencrypted databases, so I'm sure you'll understand my distrust.   
  • Spotify currently has my money thanks to its deep integration with Facebook and the ridiculously large selection of user-generated playlists for every taste. I am disappointed, however, that it is impossible to discover these playlists using Spotify's mobile apps. Playlists that you find on Spotify using your computer can be saved to your account and then accessed via mobile, but there's really not a way to find new playlists on the apps.  Shame on them—if I can't find it on my smartphone or tablet, it almost doesn't get found.  

So, that's it. You've got an almost overwhelming number of choices and features to consider, but that's a good thing.  And between free trials and the relatively low prices of each of the services, there's not much harm in sampling until you find the one you like. So have fun and explore—it's a renter's market!