All too often the world outside the United States misses out on awesome web services like Netflix Instant--licensing red tape inevitably bars eager fans from getting in on the fun. Every so often those positions are reversed: music streaming service Spotify has been a major hit in Europe with over a million subscribers and about 6.5 million free listeners, but US residents are barred from listening in. But not for much longer: Spotify finally has deals with major record labels in place and plans to launch in the United States in the near future.
If Spotify had been available in the US at the same time it hit Europe back in 2008, it may have swept the globe to become the dominant music subscription service the world over. Today, claiming that crown won’t be so easy: the field is thick with grizzled competitors like Pandora and Rhapsody and newcomers like Rdio, and Turntable.fm. How can Spotify come out on top? Social integration? App support? Sheer selection?
We put 10 music services under the microscope to see which is worth committing to for the long haul and to determine where Spotify has to excel to take the US by storm.
Everything online is moving towards the cloud, and services like Netflix Instant and Rdio have proven streaming is a viable alternative to downloading video and audio. Surprisingly, the big story in Internet music for 2011 has been cloud storage, not dedicated streaming catalogs--Amazon, Apple and Google have released their own services for storing music in the cloud and streaming it to a range of connected devices. These are great services for people who want to access their music libraries away from home, but not so good for people looking to discover new music or do away with the hassle of managing a library.
The appeal of services like Rdio and Spotify is simple: they offer millions of tracks. Think of a song on a whim? There’s a good chance you can be listening to it within seconds. Pandora is the exception: as an online radio service, Pandora is more about discovering music through genre similarities than buying into a massive library of tracks. And despite the buzz these services get online, they still represent a surprisingly small portion of the market. According to one research study, the music streaming business consists of fewer than 6 million paying subscribers as of 2011. That same study predicts subscriptions to balloon to over 160 million by 2016.
While the most popular streaming services will grow with the market, right now there’s not a ton that differentiates them. Most streaming plans cost about $5 or $10 per month. That means features, app support, user interface design and library size separate the winners from the losers. Here’s an overview of how the libraries and prices of 10 popular services compare.
|Service||Library||Annual cost||Plan Details|
|Spotify||13 million||Free / €60 / €120||€10 per month premium offers mobile and offline playback|
|Rdio||8.5 million||$60 / $120||$10 per month premium offers mobile and offline playback|
|Pandora||800,000||Free / $36||Premium plan removes daily skip limit and ads, offers desktop player|
|Slacker Radio||8 million||Free/ $48 / $120||$10 per month premium offers on demand music, offline playback|
|Rhapsody||10 million||$120 / $180||$15 per month premium offers offline downloads to 3 devices instead of 1|
|Zune||11 million||$150||Supports offline playback and offers 10 free (permanent) downloads per month|
|Napster||10 million||$50 / $96||Premium plan offers mobile and offline|
|Grooveshark||Unknown (millions)||Free / $72 / $108||$9 per month premium plan offers mobile and offline playback|
|MOG||11 million||$60 / $120||$10 per month premium offers mobile and offline playback|
|Turntable.fm||11 million||Free||Supports user uploads|
The chart above demonstrates an obvious trend: a free or cheap standard service usually offers limited web playback on a computer, while a more expensive premium tier unlocks access to mobile apps and offline song caching. Assuming Spotify’s US incarnation releases with the same library of songs it currently enjoys, it will be the most complete music streaming platform on the Internet. Spotify imports friends from Facebook and supports Facebook and Twitter link sharing--social’s covered. So is app support: iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 6.x, Symbian and Palm apps offer streaming and offline playback.
Outside of its enormous library, Spotify isn’t very different from existing services: everyone supports iPhone and Android, most support Blackberry, and Slacker Radio even supports Palm, Window Mobile and Windows Phone 7. While Spotify will be an excellent choice for newcomers to music streaming--those who decide to finally invest in a music platform and want to go for the biggest they can find--it doesn’t offer much in the way of features to grab users away from the services they’ve already settled in with.
Rdio thinks the key to success lies in its more robust social features, and Grooveshark and Turntable.fm are testaments to that theory. Both rely on social networking and user uploaded tracks to grow their userbase. The shady legality of that practice has been a problem for Grooveshark, which couldn’t get its app onto the official iTunes app store and recently had its Android app pulled from the market.
Rdio and Grooveshark offer some of the slickest web-friendly user interfaces around, which is a big part of why Napster and Rhapsody don’t get too much attention. They’re established brands that are going to keep on kickin’, but neither capture the buzz or appeal of a freshly designed site. Even Zune, which offers an appealing 10 free songs per month and introduced Microsoft Metro UI, has been around for too long (and is too limited by its lack of Android and iOS apps) to appeal to a broad range of users.
Everyone’s looking for something a little different when it comes to interface design, and thankfully almost every streaming service listed above offers a 7- or 14-day free trial before demanding a credit card and some subscription money. Spotify’s huge library will make it a strong contender the second it touches down in the US, but the overall experience of using the service--and perhaps the growing importance of social integration--will be critical to Spotify’s success.
We recommend trying Rdio for its UI and social features, MOG for its expansive library, the free version of Grooveshark if you want to check out user-uploaded tracks (and don’t mind sideloading the Android app or have a jailbroken iPhone), and Zune Pass if you’re a Windows Phone 7 user. If you don’t like any of ‘em, Spotify may be the service for you.
Images via flickr user ekkun, namtong.me dvice