The advent of music streaming has revolutionised the way we listen to music on a daily basis. It is fast becoming the most popular and convenient way for us to consume music and is having a significant effect on physical and digital music sales.
It’s hard to compare the specific numbers of sales against streams, as such a comparison would mean associating continuous playback of music in contrast to a one-time purchase, but many other measures in the music consumption market can distinguish just how much streaming is replacing physical sales of CDs and purchasable digital downloads.
This significant change in music listening preference has also caused a huge shift of focus for the music and recording industry. Streaming generated 75% of industry revenue in 2018, which is up by 10% 2017.
This growth has been fuelled by several things, including new hardware and smart devices that support streaming services, such as multiroom speakers and smartphones. A generational change, with millennials far more likely to choose streaming over music purchases than their seniors, and finally greater coverage and faster internet speeds across developing countries.
This surge in streaming popularity, has resulted in a large number of companies investing in this sector to now offer their own services. The market is now becoming hugely competitive with offerings from the likes of Spotify, YouTube Music, Apple Music, Pandora, Amazon Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Deezer, Napster and many more.
With such a vast selection of options available, choosing the right one can be tough. There are so many things to consider such as, music selection and size of library, audio quality, accuracy of recommendations, ease of use, costs and value for money and native support across multiple hardware and software platforms.
We’ve put this guide together in order to give you a little history of how music streaming came about and some brief comparisons of our top picks, which should make it easier for you to choose the right one for your needs.
Music streaming services were initially launched as a way to curb and overcome the illegal downloading and file sharing of music content which plagued much of the 90’s and early 2000s. During the golden age of the Internet, programs like Napster, Kazaa, and Limewire were commonplace and an easy way to source low-quality MP3 music files. With growing pressure from governments and the record industry, Napster was forced to shut down its servers in response to a federal order, in 2001.
Spotify was launched in 2008 and is now the global market leader in music streaming with over 113m subscribers, by comparison this is nearly double that of the next biggest service Pandora (US only service) which has just over 63m subscribers. Located in Sweden, it took Spotify 3 or so years to branch outside of Europe and offer their service to a global audience. This paved the way for giants including Amazon, Apple and Google to get in on the streaming action and also allow smaller niche companies like Tidal to join the market, each attempting to differentiate themselves in various ways.
We will now give a brief overview of the 6 largest and most common streaming services (Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Apple Music) and a couple of smaller niche competitors popular amongst audio enthusiasts (Tidal and Deezer). We’ll highlight their strengths and what makes each one unique and a possible option for you in your quest to find the perfect music streaming service.
As mentioned earlier Spotify is currently the most popular music-streaming service in the world. The service has over 113 million users, 50 million of which are paying customers. It also has a vast music library giving you access to over 50m songs. It offers users two ways of listening to music: either with a free subscription that includes the very basic streaming functionality but has ads that play every 15 minutes or so and with a premium subscription that gets rid of the ads and unlocks extra features like on-demand mobile playback and downloading songs for listening offline. This premium service costs $11.99 a month.
As Spotify was the first company to bring music streaming to the masses, they created many of the features that are now standard throughout the industry. Some of these include:
Playlists - build playlists for quick access to your most favourite tracks or to suit specific occasions or moods. You can also create and share playlists with friends, family and other users.
Music discovery - Spotify offers various ways to discover new music. You can follow friends and family to see what they're listening to or track your favourite artists directly so you can keep updated with their latest releases. Spotify also has a very strong recommendation algorithm which suggests music for you to listen to based on yours and others current listening trends. They also have weekly and daily mixes and playlists that change and update based on newly released content.
Offline play mode – Using a music streaming service obviously requires you to be connected to the internet in order to listen to music. Spotify has introduced a feature that allows users to download music to their devices for listening in situations when internet access is not available. In order to protect the music industry, this content is encrypted and cannot be copied or moved off the device. There is also a limit of just over 3000 songs per device.
Lyrics – Spotify have partnered with Genius and Soundhound to add support for lyrics on its service so you can view them whilst listening to your music.
If you have a private digital music collection that you’ve purchased and stored over the years, Spotify also conveniently allows you to play this back through their application. Spotify is available cross-platform on all of the major providers like iOS, Windows and Android, making it easily accessible across many devices. For other Wi-Fi enabled devices like multiroom speakers, smart watches etc, you can use Spotify via Spotify Connect. A full list of supported devices is available to view on their website.
As mentioned above, a premium single user subscription is $11.99 a month, Spotify also offer a special discounted rate for students at $5.99 and an extremely good value for money proposition for family subscriptions at $17.99 a month. This allows you to have up to six family members on one subscription.
In summary Spotify is a great streaming service with loads of leading edge features, and also has one of the most self-intuitive and pleasant interfaces out there, making it a great option and starting point if you’re new to music streaming!
Deezer is a French music streaming service founded in 2007. Available in 180 countries and with a music library broader than Spotify at 56m songs, it is a fantastic alternative to consider. It shares many of the great features offered by Spotify but also includes 2 additional subscription options, these are an annual subscription (allowing you to bring down your monthly subscription by paying in one lump sum every 12 months) and Deezer Hi-Fi (High quality FLAC streaming so you can experience CD quality audio - 16-bit 1,411 kbps).
Two additional unique features that Deezer offers are:
Flow – a continuous playlist of personalised music that adapts accordingly to songs you like and dislike using the integrated rating system, Flow incorporates that information into its music selection, tweaking its playlist with a combination of your favourite tracks and new recommendations based on those artists and tracks.
Sensations – Deezer films exclusive content from major recording artists like Ed Sheeran and offers this to be viewed for free to their paid subscribers. Each session is roughly 15 minutes long with a very high production quality in-line with modern music videos.
In summary if you’re looking to try your first streaming service, and are looking for something which gives you the option for CD quality streaming you should really consider Deezer. They also offer a 30-day free trial so you can find out if it’s right for you!
Amazon Music Unlimited
Launched towards the end of 2016, one of the most recent introductions in on-demand music streaming is Amazon’s Music Unlimited. Although they are almost a decade late in joining the market compared with the likes of Spotify, with very aggressive pricing options and access to over 300 million customers via their e-commerce platform, Amazon Music is gaining popularity - and fast.
With a cheaper subscription option available to existing Amazon prime customers, making the switch from a competing service both tempting and easy for users in that scenario. At its core, Amazon Music Unlimited is very similar to the other services and also has over 50 million songs available for on-demand streaming from the 3 leading record labels along with a wide variety from hundreds of smaller independents. Naturally you’ll get all the standard features one would be accustomed to from all the other majors.
Another very strong selling point is Amazon’s seamless and excellent integration with Alexa, their voice assistant solution. With over 100 million Alexa devices in homes all around the world, once again Amazon has the upper hand with direct access to a very large pool of consumers.
In summary Amazon's streaming music service provides an interesting alternative to the many competing services on the market and should be a serious consideration, especially for owners of Alexa connected devices and current subscribers to their prime service.
With Amazon’s huge financial clout, and vast market reach we see the release of Amazon music unlimited as the very first step and long-term investment in the music streaming sector.
Google Play Music
As with most common services, Google’s Play Music has a free and paid service. The paid service like most competitors will set you back $11.99 a month, and gives you access to just over 40m songs (a little less than others but still a huge catalogue to browse from).
Where Google Play Music sets itself apart from others is its Music Store. If you’re someone who prefers to own the content they listen to, the music store has an extensive library of songs and albums that you can purchase. It’s worth noting you don’t have to be a subscriber to their on-demand service in order to purchase music. Music purchased through the Google Play music store can be streamed through the Google Play Music app or downloaded for playback offline, offering no restrictions.
Another of Google Play Music's unique features is the ability to upload your existing music collection to the Google cloud and listen to it on-demand whenever and wherever you go. You can upload a maximum of 50,000 songs to your account, and MP3, AAC, OGG, WMA, FLAC and ALAC formats are supported.
As of 2006 Google acquired YouTube and have since been cross promoting between both platforms. Therefore, if you’re a subscriber to Google Play Music you get free access to YouTube Premium which has many benefits including Ad-free videos, the ability to save and watch videos for offline viewing and much more.
In summary if you’re looking for a streaming service which has a very versatile and stable android application, MP3 streaming, ability to purchase music, upload your existing library to the cloud and the extensive benefits of a free YouTube premium subscription then Google Play Music is definitely an excellent solution you should consider.
Like Amazon Music, Apple Music joined the streaming revolution late, in 2015. In a very short period of time they have amassed 60 million subscribers and are now the 3rd largest music streaming provider in the world. Unlike most of its competitors, Apple Music does not have a free, ad-supported subscription option. There are various payment plans including – $11.99 a month, £119 one off annual payment (this gets you 2 months free!), a student subscription at $5.99 a month and the commonly offered family offer at $17.99(allowing up to 6 active family members).
Like all services listed before this, each one has their strengths and core features which they use to try and give them the edge over the competition. For apple Music these are:
Recommendation Engine & Playlists - Apple music has a very intelligent and engaging recommendations engine, so finding new artists, albums and exploring your favourite genres is a joy. With a very large selection of curated playlists, put together by Apple’s team of music experts, there’s a playlist for every genre, mood, activity or occasion. From golden oldies, weekly hits, future emerging talent to gym playlists there’s something for everyone.
Beats 1 Radio - a 24/7 worldwide live radio station with celebrity hosts and star guests. Featuring interviews with popular artists like Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Elton John, Pharrell Williams and many more allows you to enjoy exclusive content from the industry’s leading artists.
If you’re a current iTunes user with an existing music library (whether it was purchased from iTunes or ripped from a CD) this content can be played through Apple Music, allowing you to maintain one centralised music library.
In summary if you’re an existing iTunes or Apple user and want to keep all your services in one ecosystem Apple Music with its Siri integration, Beats 1 Radio and tasteful playlists curated by humans rather than algorithms makes it a worthy contender for your consideration.
Tidal is arguably the most popular streaming service amongst audiophiles, audio enthusiasts and anyone looking for a streaming service that offers lossless CD quality and high-resolution streaming capabilities. Founded in Norway in 2014, it was shortly purchased by Jay-Z in 2015. It was relaunched with a heavy emphasis on Rap culture and exclusive content. The service is promoted as being the first artist-owned streaming service. A tidal subscription gives you access to 60 million songs (industry leading) and 240,000 music videos. There are two subscription options - Tidal Premium (lossy quality) and Tidal HiFi (lossless CD quality – FLAC-based 16-Bit/44.1 kHz – and MQA – typically 24-bit/96 kHz).
Along with Jay Z, Tidal has 16 other musical artists with a stake in the business, some of whom are – Beyonce, Daft Punk, Usher, Alicia Keys, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Rihanna, many of which release songs/albums, music videos and other content exclusively on the service.
With only 3m subscribers, Tidal remains a niche service by comparison to the larger players and maintains focus on audio quality first and foremost. Most streaming services use lossy audio compression technology which sacrifices audio quality to reduce a song's file size, Tidal offers FLAC audio for all songs in its catalogue and MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) on selected songs and albums. Both FLAC and MQA are lossless formats, which mean they preserve the audio quality of their source material without compromise. FLAC offers CD-quality audio, while MQA promises to match the quality of a song as it was recorded in the studio. Furthermore, Tidal is currently the only service in the world to offer MQA audio.
In summary if you’re a passionate audiophile or someone who appreciates superior sound and is looking for the biggest collection of CD quality music on tap then there really isn’t anything better available!
As with most things in life we have access to an abundance of choice, the same applies for music streaming services. It’s definitely not one size fits all here and depending on your needs or wants there’s a suitable service out there for you.
We hope the above guide has been helpful in shortlisting and giving you an overview of some of the industry leading on-demand music streaming options along with highlighting their respective unique features and offerings.
A final note of advice, make use of the generous free trials offered by many of the brands in order to trial a service before you commit to a monthly or annual plan. This will give you the ability to experience their apps and potential benefits they may offer.