Best ways to stream music - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Best ways to stream music

As quickly as technology is changing today, with the explosion of powerful tablets and do-everything smartphones, so too are the media being forced to adapt or die.

Newspapers and magazines are just shells of their former selves; most people get their news from the internet. Films make the jump from the screen to DVD to PC- or tablet-compatible digitized format.

But of all common forms of consumer media the biggest changes have occurred to, and most negatively impacted, the commercial music industry.

itunes-25-535x535Music stores have shuttered. Paid digital downloads of albums have tanked. Revenues from iTunes have dropped. Piracy, and that’s a fine line nowadays, even in these post-Napster days, flourishes. Free music can be downloaded from a wide variety of specialty apps, and even entire albums from YouTube.

Right to piracy?

Music consumers  in large numbers consider it their right to torrent or visit a pirate website to download music they are interested in. The good news is they often do this to obtain just a couple of songs to see if they like them, then, usually, will buy more music from these artists from Amazon or iTunes.

But the biggest change is not the switch from CDs to MP3s as the most common format for music, or rampant piracy; it is the rise of streaming, on demand music services such as Spotify or Pandora.

A big clue to this is one technological change little noted in the media. Dedicated MP3 players are clearly on the way out. Always-connected cellphones are becoming the de facto standard device for personal music consumption. Oh yes and by the way, they also play MP3s so you needn’t carry two devices around, one for Internet connectivity, one for music.

Apple, which didn’t invent MP3 players but set the standard and brought them to the mainstream with its line of iPods, changing forever how we listen to music, has seen sales of new iPods drop by 50 percent over the last two years.

Baby steps

The late Steve Jobs, as usual, correctly, predicted the iPod was not a permanent device. He described them as “baby steps toward the iPhone, ” which after all is, among other things, an iPod with a data connection and phone radio.

So we are witness to another paradigm shift in personal musical listening, as great in its way as the original Sony Walkman, turning 35 years old last week, and which ushered in the age of truly portable, truly personal listening devices.

Steve Job's iPod change the music industry for good. (Wikipedia)

Steve Job’s iPod change the music industry for good. (Wikipedia)

iPhones and their Android counterparts handle music playback just fine, and most Android devices have SD storage cards holding up to 64 gigabytes worth of media. And even 16 gigabyte and larger storage-equipped iPhones have plenty of room for a large MP3 or AAC formatted music library.

One alternative to this size barrier to accumulating large media libraries and free access to them is the growing use of cloud storage services such as Dropbox or Google Drive, which typically offer from two to fifteen gigabytes for free, jumping from about $5 to $10 a month for an upgrade to 50 gigabytes.

You can upload your collection of music (and video, photos, documents, ebooks; but our topic here is music) and stream them to your Internet connected media-capable device–your cellphone–just as you would from a subscription music service.

But the most recent trend is even more worrisome to musicians and their labels than rampant piracy of recorded music. And that is the highly customized, on demand streaming services, which pay royalties not per individual play as was the model for traditional radio, but for licensing agreements to the music labels and large copyright holders such as Sony to obtain rights to the music.

Talking head

David Byrne, formerly of the Talking Heads and now a solo performer, has laid out this potential disaster for artists. “I have written elsewhere that it looks doubtful that musicians will be able to make much of a living from their recordings given the kind of pittance that trickles down from streaming services after record labels and others have taken their pieces of the pie. It appears that it will be harder and harder for musicians to even get to the level of audience where they can make a living based on income from live shows. My assumption in coming to this conclusion is that the impact of these services will be this profound because they might soon be the way most folks consume recorded music.

David Byrne speaking at the 2006 Future of Music Policy Summit hosted by the McGill University Schulich School of Music in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Wikipedia)

David Byrne speaking at the 2006 Future of Music Policy Summit hosted by the McGill University Schulich School of Music in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Wikipedia)

“Music consumption through streaming grew 32 percentfrom 2012 to 2013 in the U.S., while overall music sales fell 6.3%. At present these services are, in some countries, a small ancillary revenue stream for musicians, and in those cases they’re viewed as another welcome revenue stream. But I’m curious as to what happens to musicians when these services become more ubiquitous—when streaming becomes the new download (just as the download took over physical CD sales)—which is what the owners, partners and investors in them intend.”

Clearly, musicians and their labels and distributors, still smarting from the precipitous drop in CD sales, now fear the loss of even more revenue for their music from streaming services. But the main reason I have included this excerpt from a longer article on this topic is that it buttresses my argument that music streaming services are indeed the next big thing.

Pity the musicians if you wish. But it is the content owners’ business decision to get into bed with streaming services, not the artists’, so obviously somebody sees streaming as the dominant method of future music consumption, profitable or not.

It seems to me that just a few years ago, when piracy was first being discussed as a serious threat to the music industry, that the central argument in defense of piracy was the huge profits the industry was making on the sale of CDs as the only source of consumer music.

What’s best for the consumer

What is most relevant to this article is what is best for you, the consumer, and streaming audio services, from Spotify to the new start-up Beats Music.

They have several advantages over the traditional and still most common MP3 (or higher fidelity, larger file-sized formats such as AAC, FLAC, and others) collection, though I doubt they will ever replace these entirely as people like to own the music they love and have access to it whenever they like.

But for casual listening streaming services can’t be beat. For about the cost of ten legally purchased MP3 files per month, listeners can have access to music collections containing 20 million songs on demand.

Here is a rundown on the leaders and newcomers to the industry, their costs, if any, and their advantages and disadvantages vis a vis one another.

Spotify

First we look at Spotify, the Grand Old Man of streaming services. Not only is it among the first of such services, giving it time to amass a whopping 24 million individual songs, it has had time to fine tune its user interface and set of features, such as the creation of playlists which can be shared with friends. It offers a free version, which is annoyingly cluttered with both audio ads and pop-ups, and an ad-free Premium service. The free version is also a mandatory shuffle system, with no repeat or skipping functions.

downloadNone of these restrictions apply to the Premium service, which gives you free access to its huge library and much greater user control over selection of songs listened to and the creation of playlists and the capability of sharing them with friends.

Spotify has also recently partnered with the venerable last.FM service, giving the latter’s users access to Spotify’s 24 million songs but more importantly providing Spotify users access to its huge collection of 700 million tracks. Clearly, if you can’t find the song you’re looking for in this vast sea of music you can’t find it anywhere.

For $10 a month to an on-demand streaming service I’ll state here and now that Spotify gives you more bang for your buck, more customization, more features such as “if you like this band then we suggest you listen to these similar bands,” than any other music streaming service.

RDIO

RDIO imitates its older rival quite closely, but it has just 20 million tracks and you might be put off by its tight integration with social media, to try to discern more quickly what type of music you might be interested in, rather than Spotify’s learning from your own selections. One plus–RDIO’s collection features a broader range of diverse artists, making new music discovery a bit more advanced. One huge drawback–RDIO streams at a measly 192kps, compared to Spotify’s and others’ 320kps.

download (2)Let’s not argue the audiophile debate here about sampling rates of digitized music and the ability of the average listener to discern the difference. Take my word for it; this is a big, noticeable difference in quality when experienced through decent headphones or ear buds. (Side note–when ripping CDs to MP3 format always choose 320kps sampling rate. It will result in larger file size but greatly enhance the quality of your listening experience.)

RDIO charges $10 a month.

Beats Music

The recently-launched Beats Music tries very hard to distinguish itself from its established competition, but the implementation seems rather random and needlessly quirky. After asking you to choose a genre or genres you like, it then presents a series of uncompleted sentences awaiting your response.

beats-music-051213 (1)The outcome of these processes seem a bit hit or miss, and despite a compelling, eye-catching user interface, and the cachet of Dr. Dre’s name as a prime mover in the new venture, Beats has little to recommend over the competition. It relies on the Beats’ brand name a little too heavily.

Beats produces a line of earphones and listening accessories that are wildly fashionable among the hip-hop crowd and teenage market, but which are highly overpriced and inferior in quality to similarly priced gear.

Beats Music is $10 a month.

Google Play Music

Fewer perks than Spotify and many of it rivals characterize this service. The chief difference is that it allows you to upload up to 20,000 of your own songs, shared among your Android devices, and use its online tools to create and share playlists, or listen to its 20 million songs.

images (2) (1)These uploads do not reside in Google Drive, nor do they count against your free or paid storage limit.

Google Play Music costs $10 a month.

ITunes Radio

This service is an extension of the iTunes app, thus it is limited to Apple products or those that support iTunes, such as Windows PCs and laptops. Though it has a library of 26 million tracks, it works by creating a medley of songs after you’ve selected an artist, song, or genre. The price is quite high as well. It allows you to access your own songs stored in iCloud, whether created yourself or purchased through iTunes.

iTunes Radio costs $25 a month.

rhapsody-logo (1)Rhapsody

Spotify’s chief rival has a few advantages over other services. It has a huge and diverse collection of 32 million songs, thanks largely through its 2011 acquisition of Napster, it is available on more than 70 consumer electronic devices, plus it offers an MP3 download service the other streamers lack.

Rhapsody costs $10 a month.

Pandora

An older, established streamer, Pandora often comes bundled with new Android phones and other devices. Its major drawback is its relatively paltry collection of just one million songs. Because of its early entry into the market it has a massive listener base, but little else to recommend it.

pandora_logo_2Pandora costs $5 a month.

This list is by no means exhaustive, though it covers the major players and should offer enough choices for the average listener. For more, I’d recommend that you Google “music streaming services” for ones I didn’t cover.

Most I’ve mentioned and those I haven’t offer usually a 30-day premium trial period, plenty of time to fully explore the services and their various listening experiences. In fact you could easily spend an entire year using free month trials without spending a cent.

Final judgment

But my initial recommendation stands. Spotify offers the most features, the most comfortable user interface, and the largest collection of songs of any of its rivals. It also has a 30-day trial for its Premium service. You can try its free service, but if you’re anything like me you’ll find the ads intrusive and off-putting.

Old school

I myself have a large collection of MP3s and listen mostly to them. But then again I listen to them through my two eight-gigabyte Sony Walkman MP3 players. I have found numerous free music download apps in Google Play, I download many videos and full albums from YouTube, and have ripped my extensive CD collection to my PC.

SONY DSCBut I have many more songs than storage space on my listening devices, and constantly swap out the contents with newer downloads. Also I obtain much free music directly from the websites of artists I enjoy or read about and want to listen to.

I have yet, due to limited and not expandable storage, to make my phone my primary listening device. But I realize I am definitely behind the times, I don’t listen much in public, and I don’t mind carrying multiple gadgets. I realize that streaming services are a great convenience, and they are certainly the wave of the future.

So invest in a pair of decent ear buds or headphones, try out the services I have reviewed here, as well as the others, and use your phone for something it’s really good at–playing audio–and enjoy the music.


About the author

Paul Croke

Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology. Contact the author.
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