Apple’s upcoming music streaming service comes at an interesting time in the industry. Jay-Z recently relaunched his own streaming music service dubbed Tidal, recruiting help from other A-list artists like Rhianna, Alicia Keys, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, and Kanye West. There are existing services from Spotify, Beats, Google, and others. All of these offerings have their own pros and cons, but I’ve used them all and none of them accomplish streaming music perfectly. Apple now has the opportunity to take the best features of each service and offer its own competitive service.
Last week, Ben Lovejoy broke down exactly what Apple’s streaming music service would need for him to stop buying music. Even without Apple’s new service, I’ve already done that. Most of my music is streamed from Spotify. Rarely do I actually buy albums on iTunes, and I almost never buy physical CDs. The problem with this approach is no streaming music service gets it 100 percent right for me.
I’m hoping that Apple incorporates the best of each existing subscription music service into its own upcoming music service. What are those key points? Let’s discuss…
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Google Play Music All Access
Google’s streaming music service is one of the best out there right now, but as you’d expect, it’s catered heavily towards Android users. Google doesn’t want you think this, but after having attempted using the service as an iPhone/iPad/Mac user, Google’s focus, deliberate or not, is apparent.
For instance, only two months ago did Play Music finally gain an iPad app. Prior to that, users were forced to use the scaled up iPhone app on the iPad, which wasn’t a pleasant experience.
On the iPhone, the Play Music app is actually incredibly nice. The interface is heavy with Google’s Material Design, which some iOS users may not appreciate. It’s an Android interface that doesn’t fit in with the rest of Apple’s design on iOS. Nevertheless, feature-wise, Play Music on iOS is strong.
One thing that helps Play Music stand above the rest is the ability to upload your own music directly to Google’s servers and access it from all of your devices. As someone with a gigantic collection of live albums and b-sides not available on streaming services, this feature is huge. It’s easily the standout capability of Play Music and is isn’t even contested by other streaming services. Apple’s iTunes Match feature and Beats Music are completely separate.
Unfortunately, Google Play Music lacks a dedicated Mac app, which is a deal breaker for me. There is third-party software but it’s incredibly buggy and really just the web player with a desktop shell around it. There’s also no support for Apple’s CarPlay, of course.
Google Play Music costs $9.99 a month.
Currently my service of choice (although I’ve switched around a lot), Spotify does the best job of handling streaming music on every platform for me. Spotify has dedicated desktop apps for Mac and Windows users, as well as excellent iPhone and iPad apps. Spotify also supports CarPlay, although it can be buggy at times.
One area in which Spotify needs great improvement, however, is its handling of local files. With the desktop apps and mobile apps, there’s no way to sort and manage local files. Any local files you have appear in a single default playlist. They can be moved between playlists, but can not be added to your actual library. The process of getting local files onto your mobile devices is also cumbersome. You have to ensure your computer and phone are on the same WiFi network and add all of your local files to a single playlist in the desktop app. Then, you must go to your iPhone and choose to make that playlist available offline. It’s a complex process that doesn’t always work as well as it should and just isn’t as easy as Google’s local file management.
Spotify does offer exclusive live sessions from artists such as Ed Sheeran, Macklemore, and Passenger at no added costs, which makes it stand out from the rest.
Another benefit of Spotify is its family plan. Plans start at $10 a month, but additional users can be added for $5 each.
Newest to the music streaming industry is Jay-Z’s Tidal service, which claims to offer the best quality streaming of any service. With a long list of A-list artists as owners, Tidal promises to deliver exclusive content. The promise of exclusive content is the service’s biggest selling-point so far unless high fidelity streaming is important because, well, everything else is lackluster.
I tried to use Tidal in place of Spotify this week, but it was not a smooth experience. Tidal’s iPhone app is buggy, there’s no Mac app, and its library lacks content from indie or lesser-known artists. For instance, the app has only two albums/mixtapes from rapper Hoodie Allen, while Spotify has four. Hoodie Allen isn’t represented by a major label and it appears that Tidal has made no effort to go after artists that are independent, even in the case of someone like Macklemore. Only one album/EP by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis is available on Tidal, while Spotify offers two and an exclusive live session.
Exclusive content on Tidal is actually minimal at this point. Currently, available exclusive content mostly consists of playlists curated by artists and bands based on their music taste. That type of stuff isn’t very exclusive and can easily be found on Spotify, Beats, and other services. Exclusive content means early access to albums, live sessions, music videos, or anything other than playlists. There’s also no support for local files, which is a deal breaker for me.
Tidal is also expensive. The “high-fidelity” tier of streaming costs $19.99 a month, but for my use, Tidal’s high quality streaming isn’t any better than streaming from other companies’ standard tiers. Tidal does offer a standard streaming plan at $9.99 a month.
Apple, of course, acquired Beats for a hefty $3 billion last year and the company’s Beats Music is expected to be the base on which Apple’s streaming service is developed. In its current state, however, Beats Music apps are available on the iPhone and iPad, but not on the Mac. There seems to be a trend here, doesn’t there? Why companies are so hesitant to put out desktop apps nowadays is beyond me, but the desktop is where I do the majority of my music listening.
Perhaps one of the biggest selling points of Beats Music is its curation features. The service promises to curate lesser known content for users based on their listening patterns. You can also create a “Sentence” and play content based on those parameters, as seen in the screenshots above. As far as selection goes, Beats Music offers a seemingly middle tier compared to Spotify and Tidal: not as much as Spotify, but more than Tidal. The Beats app is arguably the most well designed of them all, with a library design similar to that of the Music app on iOS. One major downfall, however, is that there’s no support for integrating your own local files, just an offline mode for saving music from Beats.
Beats Music is priced at the standard $9.99 for one user.
5 things Apple’s streaming service needs to succeed
As you’ve probably realized, no streaming service gets it entirely right, but Apple’s needs to. What will that require? Let’s break it down.
1. Excellent local file support
This is something I feel confident Apple will offer, although possibly at an added cost. iTunes Match offers exactly what I want integrated into a streaming music service. I want to be able to upload all of my live content, b-sides, and whatever else to the cloud and access it on all of my devices. I also want it to be intermingled with the content already available on Apple’s streaming service. Local content shouldn’t have to be separated off like Spotify forces it to be. Google Play Music is the best example of this.
If Apple chooses to offer this for an added costs, I will gladly pay it, but it has to be an option.
2. Well-designed, functional apps with a focus on curation
We’ve already reported that Apple’s streaming service will be integrated into Mac, iPhone, iPad, CarPlay, and Apple TV, but these apps need to be well-designed and not the same as the Music app now. Apple can’t just take its streaming service and cram it into the existing interface. The apps need to be rethought and redesigned with a focus on the streaming service. The apps also need to have a focus on curation, similar to Beats Music and to some extent, Spotify. With the addition of former BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe, I feel confident that Apple’s service will offer excellent content discovery tools.
The apps also must feature some sort of queue functionality. Spotify is great at this feature, and Apple offers it in the desktop version of iTunes with Up Next, but it’s nowhere to be found on the iOS Music app. For instance, the ability to quickly make a queue of 10 songs with Spotify before getting in the car is incredibly useful.
3. Exclusive content & strong relationships with artists & labels
With the strong backing of artists that Jay-Z has with Tidal, he has the potential to offer an extraordinary amount of exclusive content. What consumers need to realize, however, is that the artists don’t have final say on where their music appears. Let’s say Coldplay has a new album coming out. It’s not up to Chris Martin (the band’s lead singer and a Tidal co-owner) to decided who, if anyone, has exclusive early access to the album. It’s up to the band’s record label. If Apple’s willing to pay more for early access, the record label will go that route. Apple has to be willing to cough up the money to get this exclusive access.
Apple already has an advantage with live content thanks to its iTunes Festival events. Having that content be available exclusively to customers of its streaming service would be a huge selling point for the company.
Apple also needs to pay artists and creators fairly. If it wants a shot at that early access, it can’t be in constant tense negotiations with labels. Earlier this year, we saw Taylor Swift pull all of her content off of Spotify due to unfair payouts for artists. Apple can’t let that happen to its streaming service.
Apple’s streaming service needs, if it all possible, to undercut all of the existing services in pricing. While original reports claimed Apple was going for a $4.99/month price point, it now appears the company is aiming for $7.99, which is still lower than Spotify, Google Play, Tidal, and Beats. We’ll see if it can pull that off.
5. A killer radio functionality
This is similar to the curation features I mentioned earlier in the piece, but Apple’s streaming service must have a killer radio feature. We all know that iTunes Radio is less than impressive at this point and Apple needs to fix that before it launches its streaming service. Pandora is still the best when it comes to this type of feature. Despite the fact that I pay for Spotify, I still feel the need to keep my Pandora One subscription alive. If Apple could offer a radio feature better than Pandora within its streaming service, it would have a huge advantage over all of its competitors.
Those requirements aren’t going to be easy for Apple to fulfill, but I know I’m not alone in wanting all of those features. If Apple wants to come to the streaming music industry after many users have already settled with an existing service, it has to offer game changing features at a game changing price.
Apple’s streaming service is expected to launch at WWDC this June alongside iOS 8.4. Until then, what features must the service have for you to use it? What price point would you like to see?