Whether you’re an avid collector of music or you’re obsessive about keeping your collection organized, whether you want to discover new music from a trusted source or you simply want to be able to listen to a song that you think of whenever and wherever you want will all help determine the ever important decision of which online music platform gets to carry the torch on your behalf. Other factors that you might base your decision on include price, how deep the catalog runs, being able to explore curated playlists, the ease with which you can share what you’re listening to with friends in social media, the ability to sync your music collection across multiple devices, the parameters of offline playback and skipping tracks, being able to have an uninterrupted ad-free experience, or whether you prefer a more linear experience of being programmed to or a more active on demand experience. Bottom line, if you love music, it’s a major decision! And there’s no one perfect answer in a world of dizzying choices.
First, it’s important to distinguish between different types of services that are offered. The big buzzword of late is “subscription” services in which you pay a monthly fee to have access to listen to anything that you want from the entire catalog of that particular service. But to be clear, in that scenario you’re not “owning” anything. So if for some reason you can’t get access to that service, then you’re out of luck. Another buzzword is “streaming” in which a platform acts like a radio station. You’ve got curated stations that are created by music services and are built around a genre or theme or even an artist and you’ve also got custom stations that you can create that behave by learning your preferences. Now some of these music platforms provide all of these services while others might be more focused on being really good at providing one service like programming. And finally there’s “cloud” service in which your entire collection is placed in the cloud to access from any device whenever you’re online.
All of the music platforms promise a bigger catalog to choose from and better curation and so on. The best thing to do is decide which factors are important to you and explore them which you can do as they all offer some type of limited free service or trial period. And unless you’re buying a la carte downloads, then you’re looking at a subscription model in which you’ll pay a monthly fee, somewhere between $3.99 and $9.99 per month depending on the service, to get more perks ranging from an ad free experience to the amount of offline downloads or the amount of skips allowed. In the coming weeks, I’ll delve deeper into the different services but for now, let’s look at a basic overview.
You’ve probably heard of the usual suspects such as Pandora Radio which intuitively learns your preferences based on whether you like or dislike a song and then offers likeminded suggestions. There’s the mighty Apple with its Itunes store, the #1 online music retailer, and its recent entry into the streaming radio space with IRadio which behaves similarly to Pandora. If you still want to own your music and get paid downloads, then you’ll probably end up going to either Itunes or Amazon. You’ve also got Google Play Music All Access which offers all of the usual perks plus the ability to store your collection in the cloud. Both Amazon and Apple offer a cloud solution for your collection as well. And of course there’s YouTube with a rumored impending music service in the coming months leveraging the fact that amongst teens, it’s the #1 destination to search for music online.
One of the more popular subscription services is Spotify, which includes not only on demand as well as custom radio streaming but an eco-system to incorporate other music apps as well. Deezer, a huge subscription service from France is preparing for its U.S. invasion sometime in the next few months. Tech gear giant Beats Electronics recently launched a music service and is claiming that their curation will be second to none. Songza seems to be the leader in terms of themed playlists for all of your different moods. You’ve also got the highly regarded Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker Radio, Last.fm, and iHeartRadio. All of them have substantial user bases and are all worth checking out.
For me, the most important factor in choosing what online music platform I would use was having the ability to access all of my music and playlists at all times no matter where I was. Practically speaking, this meant that I would need to configure that access via my Iphone since it’s the only device with me at all times! But I needed to do it in such a way so as to take up as little as space as possible in order for me to enjoy all of the other non-music functions that my Iphone provides. Given my needs, I concluded that the only way to accomplish this would be to access my music through some kind of cloud function. The only risk in that scenario would be if I had no online access which by the way, for me, is a rare occurrence these days. Quick side note: If you do end up using a subscription service and don’t want to risk not being able to access any of your music, then you’ll want to set certain songs for offline playback which is another way of saying that you’ll be downloading that music to your device (which for me negates the whole point of not wanting to take up space).
Since I’ve always been an Apple fan my whole life, (yes I’m one of those), my first choice for this gargantuan task was Itunes and its IMatch cloud solution. Itunes had all of my music whether I bought it or ripped it from my CDs or wherever else I got it from. Plus, it had all of my playlists that I had sweat and toiled over for years. So I tried IMatch which unfortunately for me created a disaster beyond my wildest imagination. For some reason and don’t ask me why, it basically changed all of my meta data so that every song was not the song it said it was! Apple claimed that my library was already corrupt for that to happen. Hmmm. You can read about that unfortunate incident in the forthcoming “The Day I Realized Apple Was Mortal”.
Although it took me a long time, I was finally able to fix all of the songs in my library. And since I was not going to subject myself to that hell again, I turned to Spotify based on recommendations from friends. First, I had to import 200 plus playlists from Itunes which Spotify allows you to do. Then I had to make sure that, given the choice when playing a particular song, Spotify would choose the version of that song from its own server as opposed to my computer. Because if it came from Spotify’s server, then it would be considered a “cloud” solution and thereby not take up any space on my Iphone. Otherwise, I would’ve had to download that particular song which I was trying to avoid.
Now there are some songs that won’t play on Spotify. Maybe because it’s simply not in their catalog or perhaps a particular artist is against the model and won’t allow it. Of those songs, the ones that Spotify doesn’t recognize because it’s not in their catalog are the ones that you can set for offline playback and download to your device (Those are the ones that Spotify is taking from my Itunes catalog). For me, that’s about 10%-15% of my collection (Note: That number is probably much higher than average as I’ve spent most of my career working in the music business and therefore have lots of rare or live versions of songs that no one will have, let alone Spotify). As for the songs that are restricted from playing on Spotify, you’re simply out of luck. Or, being as obsessive as I am about wanting my entire collection with me at all times, I took all of the songs that won’t play on Spotify and put them into a single playlist in Itunes that I synced with my Iphone. All and all, with most of my songs being available from Spotify, I ended up only having to download roughly 15% of my entire collection to my Iphone which I consider mission accomplished.
As for the user experience with Spotify, I’m sold! I pay $9.99/month which enables my complete mobile experience ad-free and I’m not only able to access my own collection (for the most part) and my playlists but I can also search for songs that I want to play but don’t have. If I change something in the desktop version it automatically syncs it with my mobile version and vice versa. As for discovery, you’ve got the ability to explore curated stations or build your own. Plus, Spotify allows other apps inside its ecosystem which means that you can, for instance, open up the Pitchfork app or the Rolling Stone app and so on and listen to their music recommendations. Or you can use helpful apps like Songkick that tells you what concerts the particular artist you’re listening to are doing. As for sharing, Spotify links to Facebook to help you find friends and once you do, you can follow their playlists and vice-versa or share a song or a playlist directly with a friend or even find out what they’re listening to in the activity pane. Of course, you can always choose to have a private session if you don’t want anyone to know that you’re listening to Barry Manilow. And to me, sorry Apple, Spotify sounds way better on both my computer and my Iphone.
Once I got past the idea that I had to “own” the songs, a whole new world opened up to me and I personally love the Spotify experience and recommend that you check it out. Good luck!