Diving Into The Music Stream
(The following is an excerpt from the "Diving Into The Music Stream" feature in the new fall issue of GRAMMY magazine.)
Similar to the explosion of vinyl, CDs and digital downloads in prior decades, music streaming is making a big splash, marking the latest format in the evolution of music listening. The statistics don't lie. Streaming is up 74 percent in the United States in 2015, according to Nielsen, and the Recording Industry Association of America expects streaming revenue to surpass that of digital downloads by 2016. Meanwhile, according to the Official Charts Company, music streaming reached a record high in the U.K. midway through 2015, with the number of songs streamed rising by 80 percent.
With the demand for streaming increasing, and competition for consumer dollars rising, a variety of players have emerged at the streaming table, from online radio services such as Rdio and Pandora to Spotify and more recent entries Apple Music and Tidal, among others. These services offer a wide range of music, features, discovery tools, and subscription models, all of which make choosing the service tailor-made to your music tastes challenging at best.
In addition, streaming services have raised some of the most serious issues regarding equitable payment to music makers since the advent of the recording contract (you can get a sense of these in GRAMMY magazine's overview of music-related legislation). Along with such criteria as song availability and curation, whether or not artists are paid fairly may factor into which service makes sense for you. GRAMMY examined seven major streaming services, offering key information to consider before diving headfirst into the stream.
Introduced in 2001, Apple's iTunes changed the music industry with its digital download model and the ability to buy individual songs, not just full albums. Launched in June 2015, Apple Music integrates the previously separate Beats Music, which Apple purchased in 2014. As of September, more than 15 million iPhone users signed up for a free Apple Music trial.
- $9.99/month for single membership (three-month free trial available)
- $14.99/month for a family of up to six (requires iCloud Family Sharing)
More than 30 million songs
Apple Music offers a large catalog spanning every major genre. With a nod to traditional retail stores, artist selection is wide, which is especially helpful with deep catalog artists such as Johnny Cash, the Grateful Dead and Tangerine Dream. The service also includes exclusive streaming rights to Taylor Swift's 1989 and Dr. Dre's classic solo album, 1992's The Chronic.
Ease Of Use:
Apple Music carries over the same simple but dynamic layout from iTunes, bringing a strong visual component to the music listening experience. Upon joining, the For You, New and Radio tabs allow users to explore. Hundreds of playlists are organized within genres and are easy to navigate. When using the search engine via mobile, both My Library (music in a user's personal library) and Apple Music options are available. On desktop, users may experience the occasional glitch of a song skipping to the next track or stopping when working on the desktop or surfing the Web.
Apple Music keeps the Radio area simple, breaking down genres such as pop, indie, workout, and Latin into three to six stations. Getting a list of recently listened to tracks is difficult, especially if skipping through. (There isn't a rewind option when using the Radio function.) Users can peruse hot new music and videos, playlists, and recent and best-selling releases, among others, in the New section, and can also explore by genre. The playlists proliferate more than the stations and are quite eclectic, including playlists from Apple Music editors and media outlets such as Mojo, Decibel Magazine and PopCrush. There are hidden gems to discover — for example, a blues-rock- and hard-rock-heavy playlist curated by Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton. The For You section suggests music and artist catalogs based on listening history.
Seeking to try its luck with streaming the way it triumphed with video when it acquired YouTube, in late 2011 search engine behemoth Google unveiled Google Play Music. With its acquisition of Songza in 2014, Google has incorporated a plethora of playlist options into the service. In August, the Google Play Music app passed the 1 billion installs milestone.
- $9.99/month for unlimited, ad-free access on any device (free 60-day trial available)
- Free, ad-supported option (available only to U.S. users)
More than 30 million songs
Google Play has a wide selection of mainstream and underground music and also offers some videos from Vevo and select audio tracks via YouTube for artists whose music is not otherwise available digitally, such as folk rockers Grace Pool, hard rock quartet Mary My Hope and singer/songwriter Wendy MaHarry, although the audio quality varies based on the upload. One advantage with Google Play is the ability to import an iTunes library (up to 50,000 songs) and consolidate a digital music collection.
"Up to" 320kbps
Ease Of Use:
The overall layout is simple and easy to learn, but requires a lot of scrolling on a home page full of album track lists. The uncluttered design translates well to mobile, and it is easy to scroll through album covers and find the function menus on each page. Artist page features such as biographies and related artist recommendations do not surface on mobile. Users may experience occasional audio hiccups online or via mobile phone. While other streaming services function well with multiple browser windows open, Google Play sometimes gets sluggish, although there are several online forum suggestions on how to rectify this.
While the home page promotes a variety of popular artists, there are deeper cuts to be found within, especially on colorfully titled collections/playlists such as Ambient Scandinavian Stargazing Radio and Cosmic Americana Radio. Google Play also offers daily playlists based on special categories. For example, one evening yielded playlists such as Starring In A Rom-Com (rock and pop love songs), Working Out (up-tempo electronic/dance music, pop, Latin, and country) and Making Dinner (mood-setting R&B, pop and rock). On the free ad-supported version, users can listen to radio stations organized by genre, mood, decade or activity, or search for a favorite artist, album or song to instantly create a station of similar music, but have no control over what songs are played.