These days, everyone seems to be using a different streaming service. Facebook is littered with notifications on what your great-aunt Prudence is listening to (who knew she liked Kanye?), and the options for streaming are approaching limitless. So how do you decide which service is right for you? How do you sift through the dozens of providers and make a decision that will benefit you?
The advent of streaming music arguably began with Pandora in 2000, with their mobile app going live in 2008. This is a radio service, building a station based on your preferences, seed artists, and “thumbs down” votes. Pandora is good if you aren’t a compulsive radio tuner, like I am — since 2009 they only allow 12 skips every 24 hours. After you’ve exceeded the skip limit, you enter the seventh circle of hell — having to listen to a song that you don’t want to listen to. I’ve found that once you refine your station to not play ludicrous things (music genome, yeah right), it tends to get annoyingly repetitive, especially if you listen for a few hours at a time. The ads that play are also annoyingly repetitive, and usually way off base with their market. I always get ads for Christian dating sites. Their subscription service allows for unlimited play without ads, 30 daily skips, and it also allows for mobile streaming, which allows 6 skips per hour per station. Without a subscription, mobile streaming is available, but has an equal number of ads and skips as the normal streaming service. (Pandora is only available in the USA, New Zealand, and Australia.)
The run down: Use Pandora if you’re happy listening to whatever they throw at you and don’t mind ads. I wouldn’t bother with a subscription service, especially since they raised the price to $5/month and ditched the yearly subscription price model.
Grooveshark has been around for awhile, and got a lot of attention in 2010 — it was featured as a top 50 website by Time magazine, and in 2011 the cofounders were listed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Music. It has had some legal troubles in the past, leading to the removal of the app in the Google Play and Apple Store and from Facebook due to copyright issues. Last year Google removed Grooveshark from the autocomplete program. All of the content is user-uploaded, which is why Grooveshark’s legality is in question. They have argued that all requests to remove copyrighted content are quickly dealt with, but it doesn’t change the fact that the studios and artists don’t get paid for those streamed plays. Their obscene $9/month subscription doesn’t get you anything other than ad free listening and access to the Android mobile app. If you have an iPhone, it needs to be jailbroken to get the Grooveshark app.
The run down: Don’t bother with Grooveshark, not ever. Their constant legal battles make it obvious that what they are doing is only borderline legal, and it hurts the artists behind the music. Even though artists don’t get much money from streaming services, it’s better than nothing! Plus their interface is really annoying and not user friendly in the slightest.
Last.Fm is another favorite in the music streaming community, available in the USA, United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and Germany for website listening. The desktop app is only available to USA, UK, and Germany listeners. It used to be available in other countries as well, but that service has been discontinued due to licensing requirements. Another disappointment is the recent abandonment of the Last.Fm availability on Xbox360 Live — many users (myself included) only subscribed to have access on the Xbox 360. The company has stated that they are going “in a different direction.” There is a 6 skips per hour limit, which is more generous than Pandora but still not ideal for picky listeners. Their $3/month subscription gets you ad free listening, the desktop app, viewing recent visitors to your profile, and “the prestigious black user icon,” which I’m 100% sure no one gives a flying fig about.
The run down: Same opinion as Pandora, really. It’s not ideal for me, but if you’re looking for new music recommendations and don’t want to ask the hipster at work, then go for it. Their subscription model is a bit easier to stomach, but I’m still not sure that ad-free listening is worth it.
Rdio didn’t show up until 2010, but its creators also brought Skype into existence. I appreciate that linking it to Facebook doesn’t automatically give the app permissions to post on my behalf, because let’s be honest here — no one cares that I’m listening to Ke$ha. Plus I don’t want the judgmental trolls of Facebook friends that I haven’t spoken to in 6 years to judge me for being open with my musical tastes. They have apps available for every kind of smart phone, as well as a client for the Roku and Sonos television… appliances?, and a desktop client to play without a browser open. They also allow 6 skips per hour.Their interface is clean and user friendly, but as always, there’s a catch. Rdio isn’t very forthcoming with a straight answer on how much free music you can listen to. There is an odd little free music bar that shows you, kind of, how much free music you have left before a subscription is needed. The subscriptions are as follows: $4.99/month for unlimited, ad free streaming within a browser, $9.99/month for that plus the same for mobile streaming, and $17.99/month for a family plan of two $9.99/month subscriptions.
The run down: I appreciate the ad-free streaming option for those who hate, nay, LOATHE advertisements, but I wish there was a more clear-cut free option with ads for people who don’t mind the ads. Their apps and clients are really great, but I wouldn’t bother with them if I had to pay $9.99/month and still had a skip limit. At that rate I would probably just opt for SiriusXM Radio.
This is a competitor of iTunes, and is not nearly as successful. I once had an mp3 player that was only compatible with Rhapsody, and I almost went bananas. Their interface is less than ideal, and mine tended to crash. A lot. However! Their streaming service is much better, in my opinion. They allow for streaming of whatever song you want, no radio station required. Since they acquired Napster, their interface has improved and their subscription model is a straight forward $9.99/month for unlimited, ad-free streaming, with the excellent added bonus of being able to download music to listen to offline. For people like me who live somewhere with spotty wi-fi, this is a great feature. The downside is that on my 2.5 year old Android, this app tends to bog down my phone and sometimes causes it to restart itself. I’m fairly confident this wouldn’t be a problem on a newer phone or tablet. Also, their mobile search function is incredibly irritating — you can only enter an artist, track title, or album — never more than one search term. What.
The run down: If you’re going to pay $9.99/month for streaming music, this might be the service you want. If you don’t want to pay that, then read on. I’d say it’s probably worth it if you’re someone who has long drives, or listens at work all through the day. It may not be worth it for a casual listener.
Slacker is another app that slows my Android down to a crawl. Again, I’m sure that on more current devices this isn’t a problem, but it remains a definite turn off for me. This service is also a radio service, basing listening off of preferences or offering pre-created genre or DJ stations. They have a 2-tier subscription model: $3.99/month gets you unlimited ad-free radio listening, unlimited skips (!!), and access to ABC News and ESPN Radio. $9.99 month gets you all of that, plus on-demand song listening, single-artist stations, and cached media for offline consumption. The downside: Slacker Radio is only available in North America. Sorry, everyone else. (Sorry to me as well, since I’m living in Dublin.)
The run down: Their $3.99/month plan is much more enticing than the others with its unlimited skips. UNLIMITED SKIPS. The access to ESPN Radio is really nice as well, for a sports fan like me (though I’m not sure if ESPN covers European rugby). If you want a mid-grade plan, I would definitely go for Slacker. Their premium $9.99 plan is pretty similar to the Rhapsody plan, with the added bonus of the ABC and ESPN radio. This one just comes down to interface if you don’t care about news radio.
This is another radio/music recommendation service. Songza has incredibly irritating video pop-up ads. Audio ads can be irritating, but nothing can ever trump the exasperation of a video POP-UP. The same 6 skip rule applies, but for $4/month you can get 12 skips and ad-free listening. I’m sorry, but I could barely get past the video pop-ups. I guess it’s an okay streaming service, but it leaves a lot to be desired.
The run down: If you want to deal with interactive ads, go for it. If you’re willing to pay $4/month, go for Slacker Radio. This service is lacking and not exciting at all.
Ah, Spotify. One of the most successful music streaming services, it allows for unlimited on-demand plays, with ads of course. They have apps for just about every smart phone and a desktop client which I tend to find slow and buggy. The apps are better, and I don’t usually have a problem on my sad old Android. Their ads are just as off-point as Pandora, with me getting ads for pregnancy tests and vacuum cleaners, and their pre-generated stations can give you some weird stuff. I had a Dean Martin Christmas station, and every other song I attempted to play was from Justin Bieber’s holiday album. They offer a 30-day premium free trial, but after that its $9.99/month for unlimited ad-free streaming on all devices and the option for offline listening, which again is a nice feature.
The run down: Probably the best free service for unlimited on demand plays, especially if you don’t mind the ads. If you’re willing to pay $9.99/month, go with Slacker if you like ABC or ESPN Radio, or Rhapsody if you don’t — it’s mostly up to interface on this one too, unless you have a sad buggy device – and then I’d recommend Spotify based on mobile listening convenience.
There are rumors of an iTunes streaming service coming to town, and I’ll check that out when it shows up, but I’m not sure they can take out Spotify and Slacker. Amazon just hiked their prime memberships up to $99/year to include a music streaming service, which I’m sure has done nothing but annoy people who rely on their prime membership for the shipping advantages and would prefer to go elsewhere for their music. Amazon and iTunes will really have to kick it up several notches to be in competition with the already established services. Update. iTunes streaming service is now live, and from what I can tell, it’s limited and pretty similar to Pandora.
In conclusion: Go Spotify for a free, ad based service, Slacker for a mid-range plan offering ad-free and unlimited skips, and choose from Spotify, Slacker, or Rhapsody for a premium service that allows offline caching.
***Note: this was originally posted on Musically Notable, where I write about new music, old music, and everything in between.