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Streaming Music Throwdown

6 min read

I have been experimenting with the various streaming music offerings, since it is the future of music consumption.1 Due diligence seems to be the only way to differentiate these rapidly-changing and -improving services, so here we go. Time for another table post.

ServiceGoogle All-AccessRdioSpotifyPandora
Price/month $10 $10 (decreases for multiple accounts) $10 $3
Import ability Upload (available for free) Matches2 Matches N/A
Radio recommendations Seemingly random Ok & adjustable Sparing Repetitive integration Third party3 Yes Yes Third party
Ads on free version No Yes Yes Yes, lots
Desktop No Basically a browser window Yes No

Current champ

Google's music app is pretty great, and when the All-Access part was released it seemed like the perfect complement to complete the service. In my opinion it is no longer doing what the All-Access part is meant to do - helping me discover new music. I guess in the most basic sense, I have heard some songs on there that I had not heard before (not memorable enough for me to bookmark them or add them to a playlist though).

The major feature of Google Music is that you can upload your own library of songs, but people forget that this is not part of the paid service; you can do this for free. Paying just adds the ability to play songs that you did not upload, and roll them into its sub par4 radio stations. Regardless of whether I keep the All-Access service, the music locker facet is invaluable and the best implementation I have seen.

Dark horse

Spotify is probably the biggest player in this space right now (I admit I did not give it a lot of credit on the first draft of this post), but it seems like a mess. I still cannot figure out how to add songs to my library without putting them in a playlist. This must come from years of managing a large library, but I do not want to organize my collection this way. Their radio offering seemed just OK - I tried it again for this first time in months (my starred playlist station) and hit the same 2 albums 5 out of the first 6 plays (The Suburbs and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but still).5


Pandora is kind of in a different boat, but I have used it several times over the past year. The algorithmic muscle of Pandora is great but the idea has yet to be fully realized. The fact that it can only pull from a library of 900k tracks6 limits its usefulness as a recommendation engine. The ads are a bit frequent, but not quite enough to warrant paying.

And the winner is...

Rdio seems like the front runner to me. It has many of the same top-flight features as the other two services, but with a little more attention to detail. The design is fantastic, and the organization is much more straight forward than Spotify. It feels much more social within the service than GMusic, but hitching to a Facebook account is optional rather than mandatory7. The radio recommendations can be adjusted between "familiar" and "adventurous," depending on what you feel like listening to.

There is one feature Rdio has that GMusic and Spotify definitely do not: the queue syncs between devices. This means when you start listening on another device, you are on the same song in your playlist or station. This detail by itself is nearly enough reason to switch.8 You can also mark items for download to your mobile device from the web player, which I know Google can't do.

The only gripe I have seen about Rdio is that it does not advertise its bitrate. Spotify and Google stream at 320 kbps on wi-fi, and Pandora is something like 160 kbps unless you buy a subscription. My argument is that if I hear something that I like but is low quality (on terrestrial radio or over a cellular connection), I am going to purchase it in a high quality format (CD, FLAC, vinyl - audio quality is a rabbit hole in itself). Things that are in a low bit-rate that I don't need to hear again are not a problem. Moot point.

So there are my thousand-plus-word thoughts on the state of streaming music (Beats Music not included, because it is too new). TL;DR: Google Play's best feature does not require the paid version, and Rdio is the intuitive, good-looking underdog with a can't-lose attitude that wins my pick for best streaming music service available.

  1. The second footnote of this link mentions Plex, and while they have a media server, it doesn't support some basic music player functions, like playlists. I am sure this will be remedied in the future, but until then it is behind all the rest of the services listed here. 
  2. Matching with Rdio requires WMP or iTunes, which sucks because I actively avoid both. I don't think Spotify is as strict on sources. 
  3. This basically means no for Android. The only scrobblers I have tried read from the system audio player, which then catches all the podcasts I listen to as well. It would get the job done, but it is also really annoying. 
  4. The quality of the radio is a function of the feedback you give it, and only gets better over time. It did get better, but the quality definitely plateaued much sooner than I would have liked. This could be a function of what I listened to on the service, but Rdio and Pandora are both still improving their suggestions in my opinion, with roughly the same amount of feedback. 
  5. It does not help that their web player seems to be blocked at my place of employment. Desktop player is (or was) fine, but I have never successfully started their web player.  
  6. The largest library for comparison belongs to Spotify, which has over 20 million tracks. Google and Rdio are not far behind. 
  7. The best social analogy I have heard is Spotify : Facebook :: Rdio : Twitter. Yes, I have lots of friends on Facebook, but there are few that share my music taste. 
  8. integration is more that enough reason to switch, with this kind of history


Music for the masses

4 min read

Music is a staple of human civilization. Musicians are staples of music. Being exploited and undervalued is a staple of being a musician, especially if you listen to them long enough that they start talking instead of music-ing. Even in the early twentieth century when prerecorded music became a staple of movies, musicians were not happy with their lot. It is not a new concept, and the latest iteration of this argument has musicians battling music streaming services over royalties. If these problems have been around for so long, why can't anyone figure this out?

Growing up in the Napster age, I have a weird relationship with . Don't get me wrong; I love listening to music. It's just the discovering and buying and playing where my views are a little more fluid than the previous generation. For instance, I feel like there was probably a time when radio was relevant, and I keep hearing that MTV played music when Kurt Cobain was alive. Now, however, the interwebs bring meager fame to bands that would likely have never been in the MTV rotation, and in flyover country you are lucky to get anything on the radio other than just that: country.

History lessons

Let's go back to the beginning. The first CD I ever bought with my own money was by Chumbawamba, which I have come to terms with but realize I will have to acknowledge for the rest of my life like a bad tattoo. (For the record, I did marginally better on my first tape purchase with Space Jam) Then came Napster, which was shutdown by the time I tried to install it on my family's PC (75 MHz processors and dial-up had something to do with that). The local library really never caught on to the borrow-burn-return technique, though, so I got by. I finally found out about cool music around age 16, starting with the Strokes and a subscription to SPIN. My first MP3 player was a college move-in gift, which I soon flipped for the first iPod generation to have a color screen [1].

iTunes is all well and good unless you are (A.) a poor college student and (B.) that college has a fairly robust internal file sharing network. I would say my digital music collection increased by about 50% by sophomore year (we're talking double-digit gigabytes here), but growth has been stagnant since those halcyon days for several reasons. The low cost of entry back then is one, and the sheer difficulty to discover interesting, new music on the cheap is another. I gladly bought music from artists I enjoyed, but only because they were already on my radar. Thirty second previews never feel like enough to justify buying something I may not like -- I've been burned before (see Chumbawamba).

Interwebs killed the radio (star)

That is all coming back around now with the advent of music. broke the mold with an amazing engine of music association and recommendation, and and (and seemingly everyone else now)[2] has applied the Netflix model to music. This is the future of music, regardless of whether record labels will accept it or not. The barriers to discovery as they were even 5 years ago are non-existent. I have found more music in the last 6 months than I had in the previous 3-4 years using these services. My conscience is far cleaner than in my file sharing days, and I get the convenience of access wherever I want.

So, bottom line. If this reaches any music executives, heed these words: Ten dollars a month seems like the right price for all the music I never paid for in the first place. Make it work, and pay the musicians so they keep music-ing. I have pirated before, and taking that away will make me likely to do it again.
c/o the internet
dictated but not read

photo: Creative Commons License JD Hancock via Compfight


1. I would be remiss at this point if I did not mention my Audioscrobbler neé profile, which has chronicled roughly 80-90% of the music I have listened to for nearly 10 years. Probably not valuable information, but at least I can claim to have been a Kings of Leon fan back when they had beards and were cool.[3]

2. This is probably a blog post for another time, but right now my favorites are Rdio and Google Play All Access. Even though both those services are great, though, I feel like I could throw something together between Pandora and Plex that would do even better for a lower price (and I even got the early bird price on Play).

3. They are still kind of cool, but also kind of sold out. Another blog post for another time.