When it comes to global subscriber numbers, the undisputed king of on-demand streaming music is Spotify. 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 the hottest service on Spotify’s heels — and the most popular paid streaming service in the United States.
Apple’s streaming service has shown impressive growth in listenership since its inception, garnering about half the number of Spotify’s paying users, and now reaching about 40 million monthly subscribers since it went live in June 2015 — nine years behind Spotify.
But let’s get down to brass tacks — which is the better streaming service? Follow us below to see if Apple has what it takes to steal Spotify’s crown.
Spotify first gained 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 the service offers more music than your ears even know what to do with. While several holes do exist in its library, Spotify’s catalog is extremely deep, and even onetime 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 favorite Spotify playlists for a sense of the size is the catalog.)
Apple’s service touts around 40 million songs, however, which is superior to Spotify’s “30 million-plus” figure (though we’re not sure by how much), and also outdoes newer contenders like Amazon’s paid streaming service 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 like 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. Playlists like Release Radar, New Music Friday, and Monday’s personalized Discover Weekly provide fantastic opportunities for subscribers to latch on to new music from artists they never stumbled across on their own. The program’s 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 music 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 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, each ball representing an artist, with users tapping particular balls to indicate artists they like or love. 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 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 style (mellow, jazzy hip-hop), 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, especially its fantastic Discover Weekly, give it the edge here. Until Apple Music can compete with this algorithm-based approach, we will give Spotify the win.