Back in the days of the iPod, the future of digital music looked like a more convenient, a la carte version of the past: customers could buy single tracks for relatively little money, but the paradigm was still about owning music that you then managed yourself. With the advent of smartphones and always-on connections, the streaming service reigns supreme. Now you can pay a monthly fee (or listen to advertising) for an all-you-can-eat selection of millions of songs.
But now that the concept has been around for a while, everyone and their dog seems to be making a streaming music service. Which one is right for you? That’s a complex question, actually. Since a lot of them share millions of songs in their libraries and similar free/paid splits, the difference depends a lot on intrinsic qualities and personal preference. So we’ve decided to break them down into some less conventional categories. Let’s have a look at the field.
The Best “No-Frills” Radio Service: Pandora
Pandora is one of the oldest streaming music providers around, and they’ve survived for over a decade by sticking to relatively simple principles and easy-to-use apps. The main “radio” interface is basically the same as it’s been since the service’s launch way back in 2004: start a station based on a single song or artist, give songs “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as they come in. After a few hours of listening, you have a radio station that’s tuned to the genre and artists you’ve selected.
Pandora has evolved, of course, especially when it comes to paid content—see below. Multiple stations per user and promotional music mixes from advertising partners keep things fresh. And the company has wisely made a point of putting an app on just about every possible tech ecosystem, including smart refrigerators. But its simplicity and direct focus on the music and nothing but the music have preserved its massive following, despite only being available in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.
Free and Paid Options
The vast majority of Pandora’s users are on the free service tier, limited to six song “skips” per hour per station with fairly frequent commercial breaks. There are two paid tiers, however: Pandora Plus and Pandora Premium.
The Plus service is $5 a month, which gets you unlimited skip options, no commercials, the ability to replay songs, higher quality audio, and stations that can cache for offline playback. If you’re a big fan of the simple radio service it’s a nice set of perks. The $10 Pandora Premium option creates more of a total music subscription service, a la Spotify…which isn’t all that useful if all you’re using is the semi-randomized radio tools.
The Best Desktop and Social Music Service: Spotify
Spotify on the desktop is a lot like a full music manager program—the kind that isn’t really in vogue anymore (like iTunes). The only difference is that everything is online. And if you’re serious about crafting your own playlists or doing deep searches for specific artists and songs, it’s a great tool.
Spotify also seems to be the service that most effectively leverages music as a social experience. If that sounds a little too buzzwordy for you, I’ll put it this way: it’s easy to share individual songs and albums with friends through direct links or through Facebook. The desktop player includes a friends interface that lets you see what they’ve been listening to (assuming they have sharing enabled, of course). You can even make collaborative playlists with your friends.
There are plenty of Spotify apps…
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