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13 Popular Music Streaming Services Give Listeners Loads of Choices

But beware of the downsides, including the fact that you're really just renting the music

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You don’t need to be an audiophile to appreciate the huge change in how most of us acquire and listen to music.

We’ve gone from buying albums on or in a piece of plastic — records, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs — to downloading digital tracks from the internet to streaming music to various devices in and outside of the home. Streaming music doesn’t require you to download the file to consume it, much like starting a movie or TV show on Netflix. It instantly plays from the company’s servers over the internet to your device.

Imagine giving a record store owner $10 so you could run around with a bottomless shopping cart, throwing albums in as you see fit. And just like streaming video services, you pay a relatively low amount each month for unlimited access to all the music you can handle, which is playable on multiple devices including a computer, smartphone, smart TV, smart speaker, smartwatch, tablet and video game console.

Top 5 music services

Worldwide, these music streaming services had the most market share by revenue in the first quarter of 2020, the most recent information available.

1. Spotify, 30%

2. Apple Music, 25%

3. Amazon Music, 12%

4. YouTube Music, 9%

5. Pandora, 5%

Source: Counterpoint Technology Market Research

Contrasted with a pay-for-what-you-use approach, such as 99 cents a song, streaming services are more all you can eat. For music lovers, that sounds like heaven, but be aware of some downsides. And how do you choose?

The benefits of choosing streaming music

“Quite simply, streaming music is the best thing to happen since the invention of the electric guitar,” says Eric Alper, who has worked for artists including Ringo Starr and Ray Charles during his 27-year career as a music publicist. His Twitter account has more than 768,000 followers, and Billboard magazine profiled him in June for his social media skills.

“Instead of taking a bus to a record store to buy a new album, if there was even a copy left, and then going home to play it, you’ve now got access to up to 75 million songs for one low price, without even leaving your home,” Alper says.

Andy Greene, a senior writer for Rolling Stone, mirrors Alper’s sentiment: “Convenience is the main benefit to streaming music services. If someone told me something like this would exist, even just a few years ago, I would have thought it was science fiction to play virtually any song you want, for so cheap, or even for free, with ads, on many services.”

Streaming music is “magical” and an “incredible gift” for fans, Greene says.

Live versions, remakes, demos available

Not only do streaming services let you play songs and albums on demand, but you can also request live versions of songs, if they’re available, as well as remakes, remixes and demo recordings. You can search and play music by year or decade, by genre, by country or by accessing a curated playlist from music experts and fans alike, such as “the greatest classic rock songs of all time,” “the best music for relaxation,” or “Beatles outtakes.”

Even better, perhaps, is when you pair streaming services with voice-activated smart assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple’s Siri.  You can simply ask your compatible device to play what you want.

Downsides to streaming music

Music streaming services do have shortcomings. For one, you don’t own the music. You’re essentially renting it, so if you stop paying one month, you’re without your music. Compare this to a bookshelf lined with music CDs you own.

“While it’s not likely, a music service could hit one button and it’s all gone for everyone, or an artist you like can pull its music catalog from the service,” Greene says. “My point is that the music isn’t yours forever.”

"An artist you like can pull its music catalog from the service. ... The music isn't yours forever.”

— Andy Greene, Rolling Stone magazine

Alper considers this is the norm these days. “The idea of ownership is foreign to many of AARP members’ grandchildren, I’d argue, whether it’s music or movies or even owning a car, with services like Uber,” he says.

While the sound quality is good, those who take music seriously say streaming doesn’t compare to the fidelity of CDs. Plus, many prefer a tangible experience, holding — and marveling — at the artwork with an album and reading liner notes and lyrics or thumbing through a booklet with a CD. Another potential problem: Unless the service lets you download some music to your device when you know you’ll be offline, like on an airplane or subway, you need an internet connection to listen.

“If you’re on Wi-Fi, there’s likely no issues. But if you listen outside of the home and don’t have unlimited data [with your mobile phone plan] then you may receive a very large phone bill,” Greene says.

How to choose a music service

The big three music services — Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited — each offer about 75 million songs that can be played on multiple devices.

“Really, you can’t go wrong between any of the big ones,” Alper says.

Other services include Deezer, iHeartRadio, LiveXLive (formerly Slacker Radio), Pandora, Sirius XM, SoundCloud, Tidal, TuneIn Radio and YouTube Music with many acting more like traditional radio stations but with curated playlists. Like the big three many leverage artificial intelligence to sense what kind of music you like and suggest more of the same.

“[But] there are a few considerations when choosing one over another, such as if there is a free ad-supported version or not, and what extras do they provide,” Alper says.

For example, Alper says he likes that Apple Music shows song lyrics when the music is playing. But Spotify offers something called Canvas, animated video backgrounds to certain albums, along with a robust podcast collection as part of your subscription. Spotify’s music quality is good, Alper says but notes Apple Music has added "lossless" audio for even better sound, if that’s important to you.

Most offer free trials

While most services offer a free trial and then charge about $9.99 a month — and often with discounts for multiple members of the same household — you may be swayed to one music streaming platform if you get a bundle price.

For example, Amazon Music Prime is included with Amazon Prime ($119 a year), which also gives you free express delivery on millions of items from Amazon.com, access to Amazon Prime Video, free Kindle e-books and magazines and unlimited photo back-up in full resolution. In other words, why pay for another service if you already have one you might not have realized?

Similarly, Apple Music is part of Apple One, which bundles several Apple services into one subscription, starting at $14.95 a month for Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade and iCloud+ (for 50 gigabytes of storage). The Apple One family plan, at $19.95 a month, lets up to six people access these services, and extends iCloud+ storage to 200GB of data.

You may want to choose a music service your friends are on, so you can share playlists. Or pay for one service. And if you feel like you’re missing some music, use the free version of another, which will add advertisements and limitations on how many times you can skip forward if you don’t like a song you’re hearing.

Since each service has a free trial period, you can always try before you buy.

Comparing the largest music streaming services  

Here are some of the bigger digital music platforms and what you can expect from each.

Amazon Music Prime

Why it may be for you: More than 2 million songs already included with your Amazon Prime membership

Free option: No

Price: $119 a year for Amazon Prime

Amazon Music Unlimited

Why it may be for you: More than 75 million songs, hands-free listening via Alexa, HD music, offline support

Free option: Yes

Price: From $7.99 a month

Apple Music

Why it may be for you: Catalog of 75 million songs, “lossless” audio support, part of iTunes, clean interface including lyrics

Free option: Yes

Price: $9.99 a month or part of Apple One plan from $14.95 a month

Deezer

Why it may be for you: Some 70 million songs and a feature called Flow, an infinite mix of “favorites and new tracks”

Free option: Yes

Price: $9.99 to $14.99 a month

Idagio

Why it may be for you: The only audio streaming and concert subscription service for classical music

Free option: Yes

Price: $9.99 to $29.99 a month

iHeartRadio

Why it may be for you: Listen to your favorite terrestrial radio stations from around the country in addition to music and podcasts.

Free option: Yes

Price: $4.99 to $9.99 a month

LiveXLive

Why it may be for you: Live concerts, festivals and events; support for podcasts, music videos

Free option: Yes

Price: $3.99 to $9.99 a month

Pandora

Why it may be for you: Lots of high-quality music in this radio-like service, simple “thumbs up, thumbs down” approach to personalization, curated playlists

Free option: Yes

Price: $4.99 to $9.99 a month

SiriusXM

Why it may be for you: No longer restricted to your vehicle to stream music from multiple genres and decades; intuitive app; sports, talk and news channels; includes Howard Stern channels with video

Free option: No

Price: $10.99 to $21.99 a month  

SoundCloud

Why it may be for you: A good place to find independent artists and bands

Free option: Yes

Price: $4.99 to $9.99 a month  

Spotify

Why it may be for you: The biggest service in the world for its wide-ranging support on all kinds of devices, every genre and artist imaginable, more than 70 million songs, a simple interface, many exclusives; ability to create and share custom playlists, download music to play offline

Free option: Yes

Price: $4.99 to $15.99 a month

Tidal

Why it may be for you: More than 70 million songs, including lossless and high-res quality options, mixes and radio songs, handpicked playlists, videos and livestreams

Free option: No

Price: $9.99 to $19.99 a month

YouTube Music, YouTube Premium

Why it may be for you: Can log in with your Google account, 70 million songs — and ad-free YouTube videos with Premium — can listen in background while using other apps on mobile with a Premium account, can download content to play offline

Free option: Yes

Price: $9.99 to $14.99 a month

Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.

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