Spotify is the undisputed king of on-demand streaming music. The Swedish-born service helped pioneer the current market and has tens of millions more paying subscribers than the competition, not to mention countless millions more free users. But Apple Music, known for its high-level exclusive releases and full integration into Apple’s popular iOS ecosystem, is hot on its heels, making the question of which is better even more important than ever.
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Apple’s streaming service has had impressive growth in listenership, reaching about 60 million monthly subscribers since it went live in June 2015 — almost a decade after Spotify debuted. In fact, it is now the most popular paid streaming service in the United States. But while Apple Music is king stateside, Spotify remains the global champ with over 100 million subscribers.
Follow along below to see if Apple has what it takes to steal Spotify’s crown.
Spotify first took its dominant position on the strength of its impressive 30 million-plus song catalog. Couple this with the fact that it adds more than 20,000 new songs each day and it’s clear that the service offers more music than your ears would even know what to do with. While several holes do exist in its library, Spotify’s catalog is extremely deep, so much so that even one-time holdout Taylor Swift eventually conceded her protest. The Swedish streaming service also brings all the latest record releases, exclusive live sessions, and various new singles right to its New Releases tab each Friday, providing a great way to hear the latest from established artists and rising stars alike. (Just stroll through our collection of our favorite Spotify playlists for a sense of the size of the catalog.)
Apple’s service, on the other hand, touts around 45 million songs, which is superior to Spotify’s current 35 million-plus figure, and also outdoes newer contenders like Amazon Prime Music and Jay-Z’s Tidal. Moreover, Apple has taken steps to secure many more exclusives than the competition, largely because it doesn’t offer a free tier. The Swedish streaming giant isn’t too happy with artists signing exclusivity deals with Apple, either; Spotify reportedly has a history of altering search rankings for artists who release their music through Apple first.
There’s another area where Apple Music has the leg up on its competition: Integration of the iTunes library. Any music you have — whether previously purchased via the iTunes Store, ripped from a physical CD, or uploaded to iTunes Match — will appear in your Apple Music library, giving you the option to freely browse your own music alongside Apple’s standard catalog. Spotify offers a similar function, relegating your local music files to a separate tab, but you can’t access your local music via broad searches as you can with Apple Music.
Winner: Apple Music
With so many songs at the ready, streaming libraries can seem daunting for those who want to find new music, but Spotify provides a lot of useful tools for finding new songs to suit your individual taste. Personalized playlists like Discover Weekly provide fantastic opportunities for subscribers to latch on to new music from artists they never stumbled across on their own. The deep well of dozens of base genres to choose from makes new music ripe for the picking, and other personalized playlists like Daily Mixes are constantly being added to the mix. Spotify even has a featured series called Secret Genius, which allows fans of pop music to listen to the songwriters behind some of their favorite hits.
Free users will be able to take advantage of these playlists, too, with up to 15 on-demand (meaning not shuffled) playlists to choose from daily. That adds up to about 40 hours of new music in total every day. These lists are curated based on a questionnaire you fill out when you sign up for a free account that asks you to choose your favorite artists.
Discover Weekly, in particular, deserves high praise in the streaming world (it’s so smart that Google copied the feature). Added to your feed every Monday morning, the feature delivers a two-hour playlist of personalized music recommendations based on your listening habits, as well as the habits of those who listen to similar artists. Playlists are often chock-full of tracks you haven’t heard before, as well as deep cuts from some of your favorite artists, thus broadening your listening repertoire with a collection of songs that are right up your alley. Listen to a lot of Black Keys? Your weekly playlist might include The Arcs, a side project of Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach. Fan of Dawes or Neil Young? 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 impressive.
Spotify also gives you 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 to keep things fresh.
As for Apple Music, upon creating an account, users are prompted to select some of their favorite artists so the service can get a sense of their tastes. The interface for this is a digital ball pit, with each ball representing an artist. Users simply tap particular balls to indicate artists they like (one tap) or love (two). You can also always head back via the Account tab — accessible by tapping the icon in the top-right corner of “For You” — to reselect your favorite genres and artists. 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 as they grow and making it a pain to select more artists.
Thankfully, once the process is complete, Apple Music does a great job curating playlists to appeal to your preferences. Playlists might be based on genre, a particular artist, or even a particular activity like driving. Apple claims the playlists are curated by a “team of experts.” This cabal of tastemakers — whoever they are — 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 impressive, with one DT staffer quick to highlight a Behind the Boards playlist that encompasses music from audio engineers who have helped create some of the best music of their time from the studio control room. 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, which offers live radio 24 hours a day, 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 Spotify has its own magic at work, and its personalized playlists are only growing.
Spotify’s hands-off playlists, with its fantastic Discover Weekly segment, give it the edge. Until Apple Music can compete with this algorithm-based approach, we will give Spotify the win.
Spotify did away with the “radio” tab of the past, replacing it with an “assisted playlisting” feature instead, which can be found under the “search” tab (wherein, naturally, you can search for artists and new music suggestions). This feature gives you contextual recommendations based on your music interests. Say, for example, you wanted to create a playlist to accompany you on your morning workouts. Using assisted playlisting, Spotify will pull from suggestions based on your past listening history, as well as recommendations based on songs others have added to their own, similar contextual playlists. You can continue to fill your playlists with tracks, or Spotify can autofill them once you’ve chosen a few to start with. Users are also able to search and preview songs before adding them to a playlist.
The company is still focused on playlists, but premium users do get a feature called Endless Artist Radio, which allows users to select an artist they like and get personalized playlists based on their listening history — all of which are also available for download.
This feature complements the previously discussed free-tier playlists option, which gives free users over 40 hours of music across 15 playlists generated from their musical tastes that they can listen to for up to 24 hours.
The experience differs from radio-style listening. While it gives you more control over discovery and personalization, it’s no longer the simple channel-based approach.
In an age that prioritizes automation, Apple Music’s preference for the human touch helps with radio-style programming. This philosophy is embodied in Beats 1, Apple Music’s premier radio station that runs nonstop music — mixed by DJs — on live radio shows.
While in-house DJs like Zane Lowe do an admirable job, especially when it comes to premieres, the most intriguing shows on Beats 1 are those hosted by notable musicians such as Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest), and Ryan Adams. These shows provide listeners with a unique look into the tastes of artists they 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 some 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, creating a menagerie of options that are hard to … well, beat.
Winner: Apple Music
Apple Music costs the industry-standard $10 per month, as does Spotify Premium, Tidal Premium, Pandora’s on-demand service, and just about every other on-demand subscription service on the block (Amazon Music Unlimited costs $10 per month for existing users, or $8 for new users and those with an Amazon Prime subscription). Apple originally hoped to undercut its competitors by offering its standard service for $8, or even $5 per month, but that plan was derailed by the major labels that own the rights to the vast majority of the company’s catalog. To make an Apple Music or Spotify subscription a bit more appealing, both companies offer special family packs that allow customers to add up to six individual accounts for a grand total of just $15 per month.
There’s another way to save some cash on both services. New users with an applicable student email can get a discounted monthly subscription of just $5. Spotify adds in a bit more for that bargain, offering ad-supported Hulu access with Showtime into the mix.
Apple Music subscribers can also get a year’s worth of service for $99 if you know where to look. You’ll first need to be subscribed to Apple Music (it doesn’t matter which subscription you have). Head to your Subscriptions in the App Store app (accessed through your Apple ID at the bottom of the Featured tab) and select Apple Music. You should see an Individual (1 year) option for $99 — select it, and you can save nearly 20% over a year. Or, you know, you can always subscribe to Verizon Unlimited and bag a six-month membership for free. AT&T Unlimited & More customers, on the other hand, have the option to redeem a free Spotify Premium subscription, which will run right through the end of the contract.
Considering Apple grants every prospective subscriber three months of Apple Music for free, the service may be sweeping 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 Swedish company was able to corral so many users in the first place. The majority of Spotify’s users listen for free, and that’s better than any three-month trial or discounted yearlong subscription Apple could offer — and the sole reason it takes home the crown for having the most competitive subscription fees.
User interface and mobile experience
Despite Apple’s penchant for minimalist design, Apple Music’s mobile interface was less than intuitive out of the gate. With the subsequent releases of iOS 10 and iOS 11, however, the cumbersome layout became a more streamlined experience that music lovers should appreciate. The library is now on the homepage of the Music app — all the music you own can be accessed in this tab, and you can easily filter by Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs, and Downloaded Music, just in case you don’t want to waste your precious mobile data.
Tapping on the For You tab now brings up several different personalized options. The My New Music Mix and the daily themed playlists provide even more ways to discover new tunes, while the Browse tab gives you an avenue to explore popular music, videos, and Apple exclusives. Those looking for something specific can use the Search tab, which allows you to quickly search through either your personal library or the Apple Music library.
Apple has also integrated Siri with Apple Music, allowing subscribers to issue voice commands through their Apple TV, iPhone or Mac. If you were to ask Siri to play the No. 1 song from 2001, for instance, Lifehouse‘s Hanging by a Moment would quickly start playing. It’s a cool feature that Android users won’t get, as they don’t have access to Siri.
The Android version of Apple Music is aesthetically different from the iOS version, in that it hides its menu to the left side of the screen as many Android apps do. If users need to navigate, they can pull the menu into view like a drawer. This keeps the layout clean and makes good use of your phone’s limited real estate. Though Apple Music is available for iOS and Android, Apple Music works best on iOS, especially with the added Siri functionality. Spotify, on the other hand, is more device agnostic.
Spotify has long been the industry leader in terms of sheer usability. The mobile and desktop applications provide users with an easy way to browse music, access playlists, listen to internet radio, and discover new music. Running on the left side of both the desktop client and mobile app is the program’s navigation bar, which is broken into three separate sections: Main, Your Music, and Playlists. Each section features its own set of straightforward subcategories, which gives users easy access to the service’s many features. The search window actively populates the results field, much like Google’s search engine, often providing exactly what you’re looking for after simply typing just a few characters.
Speaking of outside integration, both Apple Music and Spotify also support Amazon’s Echo ecosystem, allowing subscribers to play songs on the company’s smart home systems with simple Alexa voice commands like, “Play songs by Mumford and Sons.” Spotify even offers Google Cast integration, which is especially handy for those who like Google’s streaming devices like the Chromecast, allowing for a quick and easy way to stream music from your home theater system; whereas Apple Music has exclusivity of the Apple TV and HomePod.
For those allergic to apps, Spotify has long offered a web player which, while not quite as intuitive as the native desktop app, offered quick, lightweight access. Apple has followed suit, with a web player of its own heading into beta.
Both have the option to display the lyrics of the song playing, as well as the reasoning behind them where possible.
Spotify’s social functions allow subscribers to follow friends, and see what they listen to and who they follow. It also gives users the ability to share or recommend playlists, along with 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 would like to see the service add an easy way to chat with who you follow. It has also now removed the Inbox/Messages feature, which allowed users to privately message each other inside the app — something the company said most users simply weren’t using and therefore was too expensive to maintain.
Apple Music’s main social feature comes from what it calls Connect, a Twitter-style feed which brings artists and fans closer together 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 can 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. These posts can also be shared on Facebook and Twitter, along with individual songs and albums.
Still, Apple Music doesn’t offer much in the way of social components. While Connect is a cool feature, other friend-to-friend social aspects are relatively bare. Even without messaging, Spotify’s solid social media integration, as well as the ability to see what friends and followers are listening to, gives the service the upper hand.
Many people listen to music while running, and both Apple Music and Spotify are loaded with workout-themed playlists.
Spotify used to have built-in workout functions, but has since offloaded some of those features to other apps. For example, on smartphones with the appropriate sensors, Spotify can be used in conjunction with an app like Runkeeper or Nike Plus to automatically select a playlist that matches the user’s running tempo. It’s a unique feature for Spotify, and a welcome one for people who don’t want to plan out their music selection before they hit the track — though it’s a shame the functionality is no longer natively supported in-app.
Apple Music, on the other hand, doesn’t have a feature dedicated to exercise, though there are numerous workout playlists available. Though it’s not perfect and was better in the past, Spotify’s integration with third-party workout apps gives it the win.
Apple Music lets you download music for offline playback across ten different devices at once, with no real limit on how much you can download. Technically, the upper limit is 100,000 songs, but you would be hard-pressed to reach that number unless you download literally every album you see. Spotify lags behind in this area — with a relatively recent update bumping the restriction up to 10,000 on up to five devices.
Winner: Apple Music
Spotify for the win. While Apple Music has made some serious strides, for our money, Spotify still reigns supreme. Its user interface is accessible, uncluttered, and makes playlist management simple. Its new music discovery playlists, especially Discover Weekly, keep it brilliantly fresh, and it’s also free for those who can’t yet commit. Apple Music’s larger catalog (though how much larger isn’t clear), exclusive releases, and features like Beats 1 radio make it a serious contender. But for now, Spotify still has the edge.
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