Stream of the Crop
A month-long journey to find the best music-streaming service
By Emily Yoshida
The biggest ongoing problem in my technological life is when, where, and how to easily listen to music. There are two reasons why this is a problem: 1) music is a vital part of my life — I need a steady stream of new tracks and artists to listen to, and I need to be able to cue up my old favorite songs at crucial moments — and 2) I strongly suspect there is no perfect way to listen to music.
But sometime in the mid-aughts, I came close. The system I developed then represents the most fruitful and healthy relationship I’ve ever had with music. I spent money on used and new music — a good Amoeba haul would sometimes set me back $40 or $50 — but as a college student in a post-Napster world, I did my fair share of pirating, too, and ripped countless CDs borrowed from the college radio station I worked at. I uploaded my entire music library to my fourth-generation iPod, while still continuing to use the CDs in my stereo at home and in my friends’ cars. Part of my collection was based off recommendations, part of it was made up of canonical must-listens, and some of it was completely random. Some songs I only listened to once; others became my favorite songs of all time. It was during an afternoon of idle browsing at the station that I found the album Wonder Wonder by alt-country singer-songwriter Edith Frost. Most of that album wasn’t really my style, but the fifth track, "Cars and Parties," became a sturdy old friend to me in my first transitory years living in Los Angeles.
Now, of course, all that hard work and illegal activity has been rendered obsolete. Even if I had a computer with a disc drive, ripping CDs feels as archaic as taping songs from the radio, and downloading illegal MP3s is a headache, even with a lightning-fast cable connection that 2004-me would have died over. Streaming has become the new standard ever since Spotify became available in the US in 2011; other contenders such as Rdio, Rhapsody, and Tidal have tried to win a part of the "every song whenever you want it" market with varying success.
I caved and signed up for a Spotify Premium account back in 2011; but there are lots of things about the service I find frustrating, disorienting, and impersonal. Is there something better for me out there? I wondered. In the name of improving the very fabric of my life, I went on a quest to survey the streaming ecosystem, looking for the ultimate service. Over the course of a month, I tried as many other options as I could, spending at least four days with each one. Because the features they all offer were so similar on paper, I knew picking the best service would come down to a matter of interface and ambiance; an intangible addictive aspect more than a list of specs.
Maybe I’ll be back, I told Spotify. Maybe not. What followed was the streaming music equivalent of a month-long Tinder bender — every bit as mentally and emotionally disorienting. Don’t worry, though. This breakup has a happy ending.
At the height of my struggle with Spotify’s awkward interface, I went through and vengefully counted the taps it took to get into the app, find a song, and play it.
- Tap on Spotify Icon
- Tap on the Menu
- Tap on Settings
- Tap on Social
- Turn on Private Session
- Tap Back to Settings
- Tap Menu
- Tap Search
- Enter search query
- Tap on Song
Six out of those 10 steps are necessary for turning off Spotify’s social function, a baked-in aspect of the service and a relic of a time when it still seemed like everything should be a social network. Some cling to that aspect of the service, but for me, listening to music is like eating; it’s fun to do with friends, but when you’re doing it by yourself the last thing you want is to be watched. I listen to a lot of dumb utilitarian music when I'm working out, and I’m not ashamed of that; I’m more than happy to discuss the specific merits of Britney Spears’ "Til The World Ends" in casual conversation — I just don’t find much use in telling my friends I listened to the first 3 minutes of deadmau5’s "fn pig" five times in a row as some kind of meditative post-workout intention-setting exercise.
I would also, for what it’s worth, prefer not to have my streaming service infer certain things about my taste based on these isolated quirks. Thankfully, recommendations are not really a part of Spotify’s game. There are plenty of curated playlists based on mood, genre, and charts, which are both easily accessible and easily ignorable. For over a year I’ve been subscribed to a Detroit Techno playlist 382 tracks long that I can find conveniently listed with the rest of my personal playlists, but Spotify doesn’t try to shove Plastikman radio stations down my throat.
Still, I don’t trust Spotify. In 2012, about a year after I started subscribing, a rift opened up in my account history. I had signed onto the app using a new work computer, only to find that all my saved music and playlists had been lost. Gone. I gradually rebuilt my stockpile, but from that moment on, the ephemerality of everything contained under that tab labeled "My Music" was never lost on me.
Spotify is purely fine. But I think my entire relationship with it can be summed up by that great wipe of 2012 and the fact that for about two years it was automatically shuffling all of my playback, with no apparent option to turn it off. After an afternoon of failed troubleshooting, I gave up, and for the next year I had to manually tap on the next sequential track whenever I wanted to listen to an album in order. It was a pain, but a pain I accepted, because from that point on I associated Spotify with inconvenience and disappointment.
Use if you: Would like to easily ignore curated playlists / stations
Don’t use if you: Hate the idea of making your listening habits social
I appreciate Tidal’s honesty. In New York, much of my listening takes place underground, away from an LTE signal, so offline listening is crucial. On Spotify, offline listening feels a little like alchemy — you can turn it on, and if the stars align correctly and your heart chakra is balanced, you may in fact be able to listen to a song you like on your next subway commute. When I turned on offline listening on Tidal, however, a message instantly popped up telling me I didn’t have enough space on my phone to use the feature. This was annoying, but at least it was a clear response. However, no matter how many files I deleted off my phone, I could never make enough room. I hopped back over to Spotify for a second, and sure enough, I succeeded in getting four songs onto my phone.
I didn’t sign up for Tidal Hi-Fi, but still, those files must be huge. Another important test of any streaming service is how long it plays music once you’ve gone out of range: every morning I cue up music for the 5-minute walk to my train station, and once I go underground, the test begins. Is it still playing music after a minute? After 5 minutes? Unlike Spotify, which usually banks the next couple songs on deck, giving me up to 10 minutes worth of music underground, Tidal appears to be streaming everything a la carte. Even above ground, this leads to noticeable pauses between songs, pauses long enough that sometimes I have to check and make sure I still have a connection.
This contributes to a broader, less quantifiable sense that Tidal doesn’t really have my back. Sure, its catalog is more or less identical to Spotify’s (though I did find some gaps — Jamie xx’s In Colour is tragically missing, so I listened to Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material instead), but it seems to be investing more of its effort in the star power of its guest playlists and exclusive content — which remains seriously wanting. (Why did Rihanna, a Tidal artist, release her "Bitch Better Have My Money" video to Vevo instead of Tidal?) If Spotify is the sturdy, unglamorous Hampton Inn, Tidal is a slapped-together luxury hotel with a touchscreen thermostat but no towels.
Use if you: Need to know what J. Cole is listening to this week
Don’t use if you: Are a snob about anything besides lossless audio
Opening Rdio for the first time on my phone felt like stepping into a tastefully minimalist coffee shop. I wanted to touch everything. After spending a few days in Tidal’s dark, messy, Helvetica-dominated world, Rdio felt like suddenly being among grown-ups. This is probably not accidental; Rdio is one of the oldest players in this game, having launched their app in 2010. It’s a hybrid of encyclopedic streaming libraries like Spotify and more randomized streaming services like Pandora. Rdio wants you to take your hand off the wheel and let it curate a handful of personalized stations to your liking — while still giving you the ability to build your own "library" of albums and songs.
This isn’t too different from Tidal’s philosophy, but Rdio is more oriented to the user than to the tastemakers and celebrities it's cobbled together in its playlist section. For that reason, I was way more open to submitting to its whims.
And I do like to dabble in semi-randomized music experiences now and then — the less taps to get music in my ears the better, right? As an experiment, I selected Lana Del Rey as a favorite artist, and fired up Lana Del Rey Radio, a concept that should seem familiar to any Pandora user. The first song that came up was LDR’s "Ride" — so far, so Lana — but after that, I was horrified to see Ed Sheeran’s maudlin "The A Team" pop up. I see the algorithmic reasons for this: singer-songwriters who talk about troubled heroines! But I want to hear Lana sing about herself as a troubled heroine, not Sheeran’s obliviously earnest ode to a homeless addict.
So far, so Lana
Rdio also lets you "download" albums for use offline, a feature which I used to put Miguel’s new album Wildheart on my phone. Adding anything beyond that proved a challenge with my consistently at-capacity storage space, so this wasn’t a feature I got a whole lot of mileage out of. Still, with all of these offline listening options, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we’ve taken a convoluted path back to something we perfected years ago: putting goddamn mp3s on goddamn portable devices.
Ultimately, Rdio is just Tidal with a more finessed UI and preprogrammed stations that happened to overlap more with my interests (I got a lot of mileage out of DJ-Kicks Radio). Both services are taking something Spotify pioneered — putting a huge library of songs at your disposal — and trying to add value via the quality of curation. It’s almost as if Tidal and Rdio have figured that Spotify perfected the library, and thus they haven’t bothered putting any resources into meaningfully improving the experience of using it. Would a hotly anticipated new player in the market be able to crack the code?
Use if you: Will mostly be using your service for personalized and curated radio
Don’t use if you: Will never use your service for personalized radio and curation
At 11AM on June 30th, 2015, I began my iOS update. When my iPhone reset I would have access to Apple’s long-awaited streaming-music service, and I was standing on a cliff, arms outstretched, waiting for my corporate overlords to beam me up into their mothership and carry me off to a land of unlimited music and radio curated by people with better taste than me. As a relatively frequent iTunes user, I figured that adding streaming to the equation would automatically make Apple my one-stop shop for music consumption. I didn’t like that, but I assumed I was powerless against it.
The first thing I was struck by upon opening Apple Music was how much stuff there was. Hot Tracks! Editors' Playlists! Songs to Make Up To! After mere minutes browsing through its various byways, Apple Music had cemented itself as the Cheesecake Factory menu of streaming options, surprising for a company that’s built a cult around its minimalism.
The thing is, a lot of these corners of Apple Music are actually pretty intelligently curated. But there are so many of them that it’s easy to lose track of them. I had found some random zoned-out workout playlist at one point, and when I went to go find it again (having foolishly forgotten to fave it) I couldn’t remember if it was New, or For Me, or on the Curators' list. And merging your iTunes library with your streaming library is much more confusing than it should be; the playlists I saved from Apple’s extensive playlist library often vanished into thin air. (Due to what appeared to be a bug, I also completely lost the ability to create new playlists of my own.)
If there’s one fun, if not flawlessly successful aspect of Apple Music, it’s Beats 1 Radio, which brings some of the in-the-moment tastemaker-driven discovery back to music. I had to admit, it had started to get lonely wandering around these faceless, vast virtual music malls. Beats 1 brought back a fraction of the unpredictable joy of a human curator; after a day or two checking in, I quickly learned that I enjoyed Julie Adenuga’s show more than Zane Lowe’s, and the New York "city blocks" were better than the Los Angeles ones. It’s a small pool to navigate, but it mirrored the kind of analog legwork I had trained myself to do growing up.
Apple Music overlays iTunes’ existing "star" rating system with a binary "heart" system — stars are how "good" you think the music is, while hearts represent whether or not you want that song to be a part of your personal music delivery algorithm. This inspired some discussion among folks here at The Verge: What is a one star + heart song? What’s a five star + no heart song? It began to dawn on me that a broader shift was happening across all these streaming platforms: value was being placed on how often a song was being played, but not how much we actually like it. Björk is one of my favorite artists of all time, but I’m not going to tell Apple Music to deliver me a lot of random Björk songs; most times are not optimal Björk-listening times. Meanwhile, I’m playing a Justin Bieber and Diplo song three times a day. I bought Post as a physical album in high school; I’m never going to pay for a download of the Jack Ü album. And I suspect many other people have experienced a version of this. What do streaming platforms think they’re learning about our listening habits? Am I contributing to a future pseudo-meritocratic music dystopia? Should I get out while I still can?
Use if you: Like the idea of contributing to a future pseudo-meritocratic music dystopia
Don’t use if you: Use sharing functions frequently
Google Play Music
Once upon a time, I used Google Music — I vaguely remember uploading my entire music collection to the cloud in 2011. This was during what I recall being the second-best phase of How I Did Music in my life — I bought DRM-free mp3s off of Amazon (and acquired them through other creative means, too, of course) and drag and dropped them onto my Android phone. There was no syncing or streaming or clouds; these were all my files that I uploaded to a device via a USB cable. I rarely actually used Google Music because I was scared of the data charges, and it seemed redundant to select the library of music that I had hand-picked to actually live on my phone.
But after several years of Apple just straight up losing many of my music purchases, I guess I expected my Google Music archive to be gone when I logged on for the first time in years. Giant data managing systems just naturally lose your data over time, right? Yahoo deletes my old mail account because I haven’t logged into it in years; Spotify just randomly decides to wipe my entire listening history. Somehow over years of life on the internet, I’ve convinced myself that that’s just nature happening. If I leave a Little Caesars pizza outside for four years, I can’t expect to come back and still have it be hot n’ ready.
If I leave a Little Caesars pizza outside for four years I can’t expect to come back and still have it be hot n’ ready
But when I opened Google Play Music and was presented with a list of "recently played" songs ported flawlessly from 2011, I was filled with a warm, pleasant sense of continuity that is frequently missing in this crazy, mixed-up, on-demand world. Even if it was still streaming them from some remote server, it was reassuring to see a collection of music and cover art that I knew I had personally amassed and organized. Much of it was music I hadn’t listened to or even thought about for years, but I was more than happy to be reminded of it. I cued up Battles’ 2007 debut Mirrored and left for work.
Google Play’s interface feels familiar and intuitive, mostly because it feels like so many other Google apps on my phone. If Apple Music was a Cheesecake Factory menu, Google Music is the board at In N Out: your choices are slim and to the point: "Listen Now" (a selection of curated playlists for when you don’t want to think), Top Charts and New Releases (self-explanatory), and My Library. (If I had one gripe, it’s that artists and albums and playlists are listed as thumbnail blocks instead of lists, but it’s all still alphabetized and relatively easy to sort through.)
If I’ve got to subsist on a streaming service, I’d much rather be streaming my own library of music and supplementing that with Google’s own encyclopedia. I’ve created my own filter on the years and decades of music available to stream, and when I want something I don’t have, I just toggle over to search and fill in the gaps. The music I chose to make readily available for myself throughout the reign of the mp3 is a kind of personal history; seeing an old Microphones EP I ripped in 2004 alongside a sleek, anonymous jogging track I starred earlier this year makes me feel like I’m experiencing music in my own subjective, illogical context again — not merely clicking play on every hot new release the service throws at me, or whatever "favorite artist" of mine I happen to remember with my Twitter-addled, increasingly faulty 2015 brain.
Every once in a while, I’ll be walking somewhere at night and remember my old lonesome buddy, "Cars and Parties." For whatever reason, the track was never on Spotify — I’d check occasionally over the years just to make sure. As I walked home after my first day on Google Music, I flipped open to my Library, found Edith Frost under my artists, and, for the first time in years, heard the snare drum chugging in my ears. I was still beaming music into my brain from some faraway server that was probably watching all my activity with more judgy eyebrow-raising than any snobby record store clerk, but at least it was my music.
Use if you: Have a large mp3 library you’d like to keep in your life
Don’t use if you: Have the sinking suspicion that all of this ends in uploading your entire life to a corporate-owned cloud, and you’re seriously considering getting into vinyl and moving to the woods, in which case, I’m glad I could help
Edited by Michael Zelenko