The undisputed king of streaming music is Spotify. With a reported paid user base surpassing 20 million subscribers — not to mention an astronomical 55 million additional listeners on its free, ad-based service — the Swedish-born service currently trounces its competition, most of which boast a few million users at best. Its biggest competitor? Apple Music, a subscription-only service that, as of January 2016, is reported to have at least 10 million subscribers. Although that is less than half the size of Spotify’s paying user base, it’s impressive when you consider the short time since the platform’s release and Spotify’s substantial head start.
It’s hardly surprising that Apple Music is successfully nipping at Spotify’s heels, however. Apple Music gives users access to the entire iTunes library, a swath of curated playlists, and a 24-hour radio station helmed by BBC-alum Zane Lowe. Even the required subscription fee is no great barrier for entry, as Apple Music offers a free three-month trial. Some users will likely change services after the trial period, but either way, the service touts all the characteristics of a powerhouse streaming client.
Given the time since Apple Music’s release, as well as its recent release on Android, it seems reasonable to take stock of how it measures up against Spotify. Let’s see if Apple Music has what it takes to steal the crown.
One of the main reasons Spotify continues to enjoy streaming dominance is its staggering 30 million-song catalog. Couple this with the fact that it adds over 20,000 new songs each day, and there’s more music in Spotify than your ears even know what to do with. While there exist several glaring holes in its library — hello Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Tool — Spotify’s offering is about as comprehensive as it gets. Moreover, Spotify brings all the latest record releases, exclusive live sessions, and various new singles right to its New Releases tab each Tuesday. This provides users a great way to hear the latest from established stars like Beck, as well as the chance to discover new and emerging artists.
However, while Spotify’s catalog has been essentially unrivaled up to now, Apple’s service also reportedly touts around 30 million songs — roughly similar to Spotify’s “more than 30 million” figure. That’s something competitors, like Jay Z’s Tidal service, don’t match. Moreover, Apple has taken steps to secure more exclusives than the competition. For example, Taylor Swift’s oeuvre, noticeably absent from Spotify, is available on Apple Music. There’s another area where Apple Music has the leg up on its competition: integration of the iTunes library. Any music you’ve got — whether its songs previously purchased via the iTunes Store, ripped from a physical CD, or uploaded to iTunes Match — will appear in Apple Music’s library.
This means Apple Music subscribers have the option to freely browse a combination of their own music beside Apple’s exclusive catalog. Spotify also offers a similar function, relegating your local music files to a separate tab, but you can’t access your local music via broad searches like you can using Apple Music.
With 30 million songs at its disposal, Spotify’s library can be daunting for those who want to find new music. The streaming king’s playlist feature and “Discover Weekly” feature provide the best opportunity for subscribers to latch on to new music. Although users remain at the whim of Spotify’s curated playlists, the program’s deep well of content along makes it a powerful music discovery tool. With 32 base genres to choose from — then another 20 to 30 selectable playlists — new music is ripe for the picking, it just depends on how hard you want to work.
Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” also deserves praise. Updated every Monday morning, the feature delivers a two-hour playlist of personal music recommendations based on your listening habits, as well as those who listen to similar artists you love. Playlists are often chock-full of music you may have never heard before and deep cuts from some of your favorite artists, thus broadening your listening repertoire with a collection of songs right up your alley. Listen to a good deal of the Black Keys? Your weekly playlist might include The Arcs, a new side project of Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach. Fan of Dawes or Neil Young? Then expect to find the likes of Laurel Canyon prodigy Jonathan Wilson on your playlist. The feature is not always on point, but it’s often pretty close.
Furthermore, Spotify allows subscribers the chance to create, share, and follow playlists of any kind — including those shared by friends — with a simple click, along with expertly curated playlists for any mood or genre you’re into. Aside from the gigantic library, Spotify’s commitment to bringing its users varied content allows it to continually stand the test of time, rarely feeling stale or used up.
Upon creating an Apple Music account, users will be prompted to select some of their favorite artists so the service can get a sense of their tastes. The interface for this is an annoying digital ball pit where each ball represents an artist, with users tapping particular balls to indicate artists they like or even love. While it is a visually striking way to dictate music preferences (the pink on a white background is pure Apple-chic), the style stomps on the utility a bit. On mobile devices in particular, the balls quickly clog up the screen, sluggishly bouncing off each other and making it a pain to select new artists.
Thankfully, once the process is complete, Apple Music does a great job curating playlists to appeal to a user’s preferences. Playlists might be based on style (mellow, jazzy hip hop), a particular artist (The Who), or even a particular activity (such as driving). The playlists are curated by a “team of experts,” as Apple calls it. Whatever their music credentials may be, Apple’s cabal of tastemakers does a good job creating varied playlists that are at once familiar yet fresh, like a mixtape you might get from a friend.
The level of individual curation is staggering, with one DT staffer quick to highlight a “Behind the Boards” playlist he received, one encompassing music from some of his favorite audio engineers who spend more time behind the mixing board than in front of it. Spotify also offers “expertly-curated” playlists, but Apple Music’s playlist selections come from individual DJs on the Apple payroll. Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio function also plays a major role when it comes to music discovery. It’s refreshing to see Apple move beyond sophisticated algorithms for a human approach to facilitating true music discovery, but it’s likely only a matter of time before Spotify takes note.
Arguably the biggest area where Spotify finds itself behind its competitors is radio service. In our own personal tests, choosing a particular artist to build a station around on Spotify doesn’t offer the same creative discovery as you’ll get from services like Pandora.
Choosing the artist Gary Clark Jr. on Spotify called up similar artists like The Black Keys, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but it tended to mainly focus on Clark Jr.’s own music. While choosing a specific genre for a Spotify radio station allows for a wider selection of songs, the service also tends to focus on run-of-the-mill hits — the Jazz station, for instance, tends to stick to the same 50 or 60 standards. Though Spotify’s radio function still provides an automatically curated, worthwhile listening experience, it doesn’t journey very far outside of the conventional box.
In an age that prioritizes automation, Apple Music’s preference for the human touch seems like a romantic anachronism. This philosophy is embodied in Beats 1, Apple Music’s premier radio station that runs 24/7, playing music and radio shows selected by its anointed DJs. While the in-house DJs like Zane Lowe do an admirable job, the most intriguing shows on Beats 1 are those hosted by notable musicians such as Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest). These shows provide listeners a unique look into the tastes of artists they may admire. Some of them also have interesting formats, such as St. Vincent’s Mixtape Delivery Service, in which Clark solicits fans to tell her what is going on in their lives and assembles playlists to suit them.
Beyond Beats 1, Apple Music has a number of more generic radio stations for those who simply want to listen to say, classic rock, jazz, or Top 40 hits. There are also non-music stations such as BBC News and ESPN.
Apple Music is just $10 per month, which, for those keeping score at home, is the same price as Spotify Premium, Rdio, Tidal Premium, and just about every other on-demand subscription streaming service on the block. Apple originally hoped to undercut its competitors by offering its service for $8, and even $5 per month, but that plan was derailed by the major labels which own the rights to the vast majority of the company’s catalog. However, to make an Apple Music subscription more appealing, the service offers a special family price pack which gives customers the ability to connect up to six individual accounts for a grand total of just $15 per month.
Considering Apple grants every prospective subscriber three months of Apple Music for free, the service may sweep away more of Spotify’s user base than CEO Daniel Ek would like to acknowledge. However — and this is key — Apple does not have a free, ad-based tier like Spotify, which is a big reason the company was able to corral so many users in the first place. As mentioned, the majority of Spotify’s users (55 million) listen for free. As for its paying subscribers, Spotify has also laid out plans to match Apple’s family pricing plan, something the company is already testing in countries like Sweden.
User interface and mobile experience
Yet another facet in which Spotify does extremely well is its user interface and user experience. The mobile and desktop applications provide users an easy way to browse music, access playlists, listen to Internet radio, and find new music. Running on the left side of both the desktop client and mobile app is the program’s navigating bar, broken up into three separate sections: Main, Your Music, and Playlists. Each section features its own set of straightforward sub-categories giving users easy access to all of the service’s features. Spotify’s search feature also actively populates the results field (a la Google’s search), often providing exactly what you’re looking for after simply typing just a few characters. Out of the host of reasons Spotify reigns supreme over its competition, its user interface is near the top of the list.
For a company with a penchant for minimalist design, the Apple Music interface is probably more cumbersome than it should be. The service is relatively easy to pick up and use — even when first setting up an account — but navigating its extensive catalog as well as your own music can be confusing given the sheer amount of content at your disposal and service’s overall layout. There are five buttons featured in both the mobile application and its desktop counterpart, which allow users to navigate around the service: “For You,” “New,” “Radio,” “Connect,” and “My Music” which combine to give subscribers all the tools they need to listen to the latest music, access their iTunes files, and plug into Beats 1 radio. It’s clear Apple attempted combined what worked best with the Beats Music application it acquired with what currently excels on its iTunes program, though, the execution certainly isn’t flawless.
Although the Apple Music interface certainly feels fresh and lively, peppered with scores of album covers and images of big-name artists, all the noise makes for a cluttered user experience. The “For You” tab presents you with what seems like an endless wealth of custom playlists — which, admittedly, is both good and bad — while the “New” component doesn’t always supply you with the newest selection of music. Under the “Hot Albums” section, for instance, you’re just as likely to find new tracks from Jason Isbell and Nick Jonas as you are Carole King’s Tapestry, which was first issued in ’71. The Apple Music interface needs refinement, and until then, Spotify has the edge when it comes to navigation.
Apple has integrated Siri voice command control of Apple Music via iPhones, allowing subscribers to simply ask “What was the #1 song in 2001” before Siri plays Lifehouse’s Hanging by a Moment. Android users working with the beta version of Apple Music aren’t as lucky, though the app seems to functional aside from a few hiccups here and there. Apple Music also hides its menu to the left side of the screen like many Android apps do, and if users need to navigate, they can pull the menu into view as if it were a drawer. This keeps the layout clean and makes good use of your phone’s limited real estate.
As expected from any app undergoing beta testing, however, Apple Music on Android can be a bit rough around the edges. While it touts the same functionality of the iOS app, the performance is inconsistent. It can run choppily at times, and it often takes a noticeable amount of time to load when selecting a new song or playlist.
Spotify’s social functions allow subscribers to follow friends, see what they listen to, who they follow, and gives users the ability to share or recommend playlists. The app also gives users the ability to publish their listening history to Facebook, which then gives their Facebook friends an opportunity to Like or Comment on the activity. While these features do give Spotify some social clout, we’d like to see the service go further with more intuitive ways to follow friends and artists, as well as adding an easy way to chat with who you follow. Spotify’s social core is solid, but adding a stronger focus towards connecting people to their friends, and who they listen to, would go a long way in keeping people more engaged in the site.
Apple Music doesn’t offer much in the way of social components aside from the Connect function, which brings artists and fans closer together than ever before and effectively serves as an all-access pass to your favorite bands. From candid backstage photos, to early cuts of an upcoming music video, artists have the ability to share with their fans a host of exclusive insight and information. Apple also allows users the ability to Comment, Like, or share any artist’s messages, with the artist having the opportunity to respond back. In addition, these posts can be shared over Facebook and Twitter, along with individual songs and albums. Though other friend-to-friend social aspects are relatively bare in Apple Music, its Connect feature is unlike anything we’ve seen thus far in the industry. It’s certainly one of the most engaging aspects of any service, and one which should help Apple stand apart from its competition.
Many people listen to music while running, and one of the most intriguing features of Spotify’s mobile app is its ability to provide a playlist tailored to the user’s running speed. Users can choose from a variety of playlists, categorized by environment (cold weather, evening, etc.), genre, or even popularity. There are also “Running Originals,” playlists of original music composed by artists such as Ellie Goulding and Tiësto. While the inclusion of original music is a neat idea, the songs seem for the most part to be generic techno, which is fine if you just need background noise but nothing memorable.
On phones with the appropriate sensors, Spotify will automatically estimate how quickly a user is running and select a playlist at a matching tempo. For phones that lack the necessary sensors, users can manually enter the tempo they want (given in steps per minute). During use, Spotify seemed to cut the intros and outros of songs, fading quickly into the next track. This keeps the tempo steady, though it can be jarring and may annoy music purists.
Depending on where they run, users will also likely not have access to Wi-Fi, and will be forced to rely on their mobile data to stream music. This exposes Running’s biggest weakness, as the streaming quality can vary dramatically depending your connection. Perhaps it was merely the reception, but starting up a playlist took a while, and the music was occasionally choppy.
Spotify Running is far from perfect. The music selection can be a bit puzzling — a smooth Spanish ballad, one of the songs that played during testing, doesn’t seem particularly good for exercise — and the performance is not always great. However, it is a unique feature for Spotify, and a welcome one for people who don’t want to plan out their music selection before they run.
Not all battles have a clear winner, and handing a trophy to just one of these two service would be almost irresponsible. The fact is, which service is best for you depends on your needs, with Spotify and Apple Music each offering specific services the other does not.
With that in mind: If on-demand music is what you crave, and you’re not so interested in radio, Spotify still reigns supreme. Its user interface is accessible, uncluttered, and makes playlist management simple. However, if being served a constant diet of new and interesting music is important to you, then Apple music beats Spotify hands-down. Apple also wins if you want to save money on individual accounts under a single payment umbrella.
So there you have it. Now all that’s left to do is make your pick and sign up! Happy streaming.
Updated February 9, 2016, by Will Nicol: Added information on Spotify’s Running feature as well as the Apple Music app for Android.