Alas, it used to be so simple. You lovingly collected vinyl. Or bought racks of CDs. Even when music went digital, you only needed to fire up a one-stop platform like iTunes—mediocre, perhaps, but straightforward enough—and queue up the songs you’d specifically purchased and downloaded.
Ever since audio’s internet revolution, though, things have gotten a lot more convoluted. Subscription streaming is now the default method for listening to music. And while the idea of having nearly limitless tracks at one’s fingertips may seem like a music fan’s paradise, there are quite a lot of ways to get there; streaming services themselves also aren’t making the choices easy, with the way they’re increasingly copying and blasting one another.
Here’s a run-down of the pricing, and most stand-out features, of some of the most popular options out there right now—and how to settle on the best one for your personal needs.
- The size: 40 million subscribers, 30 million songs
- The price: $9.99/month premium; free ad-supported version
- The sell: Discover Weekly, a nifty algorithm-based feature that recommends users new songs based on their listening histories, and all its derivatives. (While other companies have launched copycats, Spotify claims the original—and arguably superior—personalized playlist.)
- The size: 17 million subscribers, 30 million songs
- The price: $9.99/month
- The sell: Exclusive non-music content, such as short films from big artists and documentaries on niche genres, as well as the might (i.e. data, funding, and innovation) of a giant tech company behind it.
- The size: Three million subscribers, 40 million songs
- The price: $9/month; $19.99/month hi-fi tier
- The sell: A higher-priced option for those who value superior audio quality. Also a good option for fans of Rihanna, Beyoncé, or Kanye West, who’ve all pledged their support—and sometimes perks like early concert tickets—toward the service’s artist-centric business model.
Google Play Music
- The size: Subscriber base and catalog size unknown
- The price: $9.99/month; free radio version
- The sell: Users can store 50,000 of their own tracks while also getting access to a streaming catalog. The service also comes bundled with YouTube Red, so it’s a good choice for video enthusiasts. (Note: Neither service is to be confused with YouTube Music, a separate service owned by the Google/Alphabet juggernaut.)
- The size: 78 million radio listeners, but subscription user base unknown
- The price: Free radio version; $4.99/month ad-free radio; $9.99/month on-demand (upcoming)
- The sell: Pandora’s in the middle of overhauling its offerings. Currently, its best feature is easy, affordable radio listening, suitable for casual music fans.
- The size: 3.8 million subscribers, 40 million songs
- The price: $9.99/month
- The sell: Good for Europeans.
Amazon Prime Music
- The size: 54 million subscribers, 1 million songs
- The price: $99/year ($8.25/month)
- The sell: Prime Music comes bundled with Amazon’s Prime delivery service, so the subscription fee covers much more than music alone—making the actual listening an insanely cheap deal. A larger standalone version may also be forthcoming.
- (Update, Oct. 12: The promised standalone, Amazon Music Unlimited, is now live—offering enough songs to rival that of Spotify and Apple Music, and available to Prime members for $7.99/month. Users of Amazon Echo devices only need to pay $3.99/month.)
- The size: 125 million songs, subscriber count unknown
- The price: $9.99/month
- The sell: A massive, truly enormous library that music geeks and indie fans would adore.
- The size: 3.5 million subscribers, 40 million songs
- The price: $4.99/month radio, $9.99/month radio + on-demand
- The sell: Rhapsody (recently re-rebranded as Napster) is unique among streaming services for its Listener Network, a social-media platform that compares users’ tastes to those of other people.
*Note that there are some question marks regarding how long these platforms will last as independent sites. Tidal was at one point rumored to be in talks for acquisition by Apple Music, and SoundCloud may be about to be bought by Spotify.
Of course, the above is only a sample of what’s available. Runner-up choices that are less popular but may prove solid options nonetheless—especially if you’re picky about user interface and design—include Slacker (radio), Songza (radio), iHeartRadio (radio), Groove Music (on-demand) and independently minded BandCamp (paywall).
So, now—how do you narrow down your choices?
Mo’ money, mo’ music?
With streaming, people are paying more for music each year than ever before. But we’re also getting more—an enormous amount more.
The average music streamer pays $13 a month, according to Truebill, a company that tracks consumers’ subscriptions and cancellations. Truebill CEO Yahya Mokhtarzada tells Quartz that the figure is only an average, however; some listeners (such as those who opt for multi-person family plans or high-fidelity audio) are paying as much as $16 a month, while others (potentially taking advantage of student rates or other discounts) are paying less than $8.
It comes down to how much you want to spend. Do you want to pay as little as possible for music and get the most bang for your buck? Or would you rather shell out a bit more for snazzy mobile features, exclusive offerings, or video add-ons? Just remember that a higher fee isn’t necessarily indicative of a bigger library.
Appraise your taste—honestly
Are you an audio junkie or—loath as you might be to admit it—more of a casual, pop-on-the-radio Top 40s listener? Are you spending hours poring over indie music mags or do your tastes lean more toward the likes of Coldplay and Taylor Swift?
If you’re the latter, consider that some services may specifically not be cut out for you. You won’t find the Swift’s tracks on Spotify, for example, thanks to her stance against the streaming service’s freemium model. Several other big acts—Kanye West, Gwen Stefani, and Prince among them—have withheld their music from certain services because of quibbles with how they pay their artists. If you’re a hardcore fan of a certain musician, it’s worth checking to see if they might be exclusively on one service or another.
Where, how, why are you listening?
Important, also, is a consideration of how you usually listen to music. Do you do most of your listening on a commute—one that might take you underground and out of your cell’s wireless range? Make sure you choose a service that allows offline listening. Do you use an iPhone? Then Apple Music is pretty easy, and it bases its tastes on a decade of your old iTunes libraries. (You can also get Apple Music on Android, but there’s a question of whether you want to.)
For the expensive headphones crowd, services like Tidal (or Neil Young’s Pono, a non-streaming version) that focus on high-quality audio may be worth the extra bucks.
Ask yourself, too, how you’d like your music to be played. Internet-based music services can be divided into two basic—but distinct—types:
On-demand streaming: Song selection is totally controlled by the user. E.g. Spotify, Apple Music, Rhapsody. (Good for listeners who know exactly what they want.)
Internet radio: Songs play without much user input, as they would on a traditional radio station. E.g. Pandora, Songza, 8tracks, Feed.fm. (Good for listeners primarily interested in exploring new music, or who enjoy music for background listening.)
Nowadays, several streaming services offer a blend of both types, but some are still firmly in one category or another.
Try before you buy
Luckily, with the insane amount of competition going on in music streaming right now, most services offer a significant period of commitment-free trial listening. Just make a note in your calendar to cancel the programs before they start charging.
If streaming proves to not be your thing at all, that’s okay.
Most artists still release for-purchase versions of their albums, either digitally or physically, and iTunes Store is in no danger of being shut down just yet.
And for those who want to eschew digital gadgets altogether and really go old school: the surprise comeback of vinyl records recently—quite the triumph for the nostalgia-filled—would suggest you’re not alone at all.