Crossing the Streams: Streaming Services in Review

(NB Rdio no longer exists, but that has no effect on the conclusion of this article, which is that Apple Music is the preferred streaming service.)

Since the launch of Apple Music, I’ve been comparing it in detail to the two other streaming services I’ve been using, Spotify and Rdio, with a quick, and as you’ll see unpleasant, side-jaunt into Tidal. Here is my comparative take on them all.

To stream or not to stream

ghostbusters

 

Not the best way to listen to music, but far from the worst

Alex Ross and others have described their qualms about streaming services, ending up at the issue of metadata and how it fails classical music. This is not a new issue, it’s been a problem since the iTunes store opened. But while I’ve seen plenty of people tossing around the term “metadata,” I’ve not seen anyone give it the essential context.

Yes, metadata is an important piece of information for any kind of digital media, and more than a mere concept, it’s an actual quantity, stored in a data table, to be retrieved and linked to other data fields from other tables in order to return a search result. What has been clear about digital music sales and streaming services from the very beginning is that they are built and run by people just like those who work at every other business that has anything to do with entertainment and culture—people for whom music began sometime around the mid- to late–1950s and consists of singers and bands recording pop songs in various styles. They just don’t know there is anything else. So they code for fields: Artist, Track, Album, etc.

The reason finding classical music can be so fucked up is that on classical recordings there are often many artists, including ensembles, soloists, and conductors, and the track titles are integrated into a larger piece title, and the composer is an additional data field, usually the primary one. If all you know is the hammer of a song title, then every piece of music looks like something to be nailed into the neatest niche.

I use streaming services, as you’ll see below. I couldn’t do my work without them, and they are a part of my personal listening. I appreciate Ross’ objections, but most of them are matters of taste and perspective. Where he sees a homogenization of musical cultural through streaming, and the mainstream crowding out the margins, I see a huge storehouse of things that I’ve never heard or known about, all available through a little search window, and my keyboard. This is good for me and good for others. How it is for artists is problematic.

Who gets paid and how you feel about that

This is the most difficult part to resolve. It’s easy to complain about the sound quality of the audio stream, but that criticism, while real, is not exact. Sound quality includes subjective perception, and that is mediated by the quality of the speakers, as much if not more so than the bitrate of the stream. Most of the opinions you see on streaming sound quality come from people who listen mostly, if not entirely, to music that is designed to be compressed, and most people, especially pop critics, listen to music at far too high a volume. I’m a musician and a composer, and I have been listening to all sorts of music for decades, most of it acoustic. I enjoy good, loud volume—I have experienced Sunn O))) live—but I also protect my ears, and my hearing is more acute than most people half my age. What my ears tell me is that streaming quality is fine. I listen at my computer, through bluetooth earbuds, a pair of Sony MDR–7506 headphones, and excellent home stereo speakers. I expect different sound quality from each of those speakers. Through my stereo or headphones, there can be some difference from my best-engineered CDs, but the audio quality on CDs, LPs, and tapes varies.

But I pay for the services I’ve been checking out, and paying means that you get better sound quality, across the 320 K – Apple Lossless spectrum. And paying means the musicians get paid. What they get paid sucks, and how they get paid is confusing, but it is something. Of course, it should be more, it should be comparable to broadcast fees, and considering the much smaller economies of scale that the streaming services experience, that should not be a problem. There’s a lot of debate over this, and if the economies of streaming are distasteful to you, that’s a more than valid reason not to use a service. But keep your eye on the real villains, who again are the record companies. The services turn over the bulk of their revenues to the record companies, and the record companies apparently pass along most of that money to their executives (a/k/a the takers, or the rentiers), rather than the musicians, who are the makers. I have to admire their fiendish ingenuity—the parasitic, decadent capitalists at the record labels have finally found a way to personally monetize digital music.

The bottom line, though, is if you use a streaming service, pay for it. I’m glad to see Spotify move to the premium only model, and would like to see Rdio do the same. Apple Music begins with a free trial, but after that is premium only, as is Tidal. At least for the musician’s sake, although it is a pittance, everyone should pay for the music they stream.

Music consumer or music lover?

If you’re a music consumer, every streaming service is the same. Playlists crafted as aural support systems for activities like “Waking Up,” “Studying,” and “Relaxing” are for the consumer, who by definition goes with the current trends and avoids the anxiety of exercising (or even uncovering) their own taste and making a decision. If you’re a music lover, there are important differences between the services.

The first thing to point out is that while there can be a great deal of overlap between the four, they are not the same, not even close. Granted, if you are a music consumer, if you don’t need to get past the current Top 40 or Hot 100 or whatever, if you actually listen to the playlists the services make as lifestyle soundtracks, then yes, they all provide the same disposable content that you can consume, digest and forget.

If you are a music lover, though, if you want to react to music in your heart and mind, if you’re curious about things that you’ve never heard, if you’d like to use a known artist or style to open up the door to something new, then the differences, which are substantial, will matter to you. While it would take far longer than a month to find every variance between Tidal, Spotify, Rdio and Apple Music, seven weeks of specific listening strategies opened up some wide and important gaps that will matter to any music lover.

For clarity, it’s best to start with the most immediate conclusion: Tidal is one of the worst things on the internet and there is no reason any music lover should use it. Since you can’t sample it with a free trial, please take my recommendation. Unless you desperately need to stream Prince’s albums, save your $10 a month, and unless you are a technology obsessed hi-fi enthusiast with the bandwidth and expensive stereo equipment and accessories to stream hi-fi level audio for $20 a month, no one should use Tidal. The business press has framed the launch of Apple Music as a capitalist competition between it and Spotify—it may be that—but immediately it is an event that should put Tidal completely out of business, unless that service rethinks what is the imagine they are doing.

Putting them to the test

Catalogue: By far the most important criteria is the music that’s available through each service, and despite claims to the contrary, the services’ catalogues vary in important ways. Again, f you are a consumer, then the services are essentially the same. But if you are looking for any music out of the pop mainstream, or searching deep into a style or an artist’s work, you’ll see you can’t find the same things everywhere.

I’ll start with Tidal, because their catalogue is shockingly bad for a big name service with money behind it. While there are occasional surprises—a handful of Tzadik recordings when that label (along with ECM, High Note, and some others) doesn’t release their music for streaming—it’s an absolute wasteland if you want to listen to anything out of the mainstream.

I searched for a variety of jazz and classical recordings and labels on each service, and here’s some of the results, per service:

  • Apple Music has the following (none of the others do): Pi Recordings label, La Venexiana’s Monteverdi recordings, the Glossa label.
  • Rdio and Spotify have the complete run of Bill Evans box sets, including the late period live recordings, while Apple only carries the Riverside, Verve, and Fantasy collections, and Turn Out the Stars.
  • Rdio does not carry Neeme Järvi’s Sibelius cycle with the Gothenburg Symphony, nor does it have Loren Maazel’s Bruckner Cycle with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra—Apple and Spotify both have these.
  • There are times when a new release will show up at Rdio or Spotify first, then be available at the other service within a week, and this is also true for back catalogs from labels like Hat Hut.

Also consequential are some of the details in catalogs that would appear to be common. Here are two examples I’ve found, both problems at Rdio:

    • This classic recording of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, lists the first Introduzione movement correctly, but when you play the music, what you hear is actually the the fourth movement, the Intermezzo interrotto.

https://rd.io/i/Rl5LV8k-Z1q6/

    • Another famous von Karajan recording, of La Mer (coupled with Daphnis et Chloë Suite No. 2 and Prélude á L’aprés-Midi d’un Faune), suffers from a different, equally bizarre, problem. Where Apple and Spotify have the Deutsche Gramaphon recording, Rdio holds one from the Hallmark label. This is the same recording, but since the one at Rdio was clearly digitized by recording the music off of the original LP, you can hear the regular turntable static. Rdio has many recordings from Hallmark, which are literally stolen from labels and artists that hold the copyright, the question is why the fuck?

https://rd.io/i/Rl5LV8k-d5iT/

Radio Stations: second in importance only to catalogues, and to me the fundamental point of streaming music. In other words, don’t use a service’s playlists (although the Apple Music ones are not half bad), make a radio station based on an artist, album or track you like and see where it takes you. The music you end up hearing is based on an algorithm that you can modify by telling the service if you like or dislike a track it presents to you (and in the case of Rdio, they have the additional feature of a slider that you can move all the way to the left for music only by the initial artist, or all the way to the right for greater variety—or leave it in-between).

I was surprised to find, via starting a radio station from the same place and seeing where it went, how different each services’ algorithms are. Apple Music was by far the best, providing a variety of music in a way that showed superior intelligence and taste. For example:

  • I started with Benjamin Booker, because his excellent debut album is associated both with the roots of blues and with white punk and post-punk rock. Spotify and Rdio both pulled up nothing but white rock, like Jack White and Thee Oh Sees, while Apple gave me a surprising and serendipitous mix, not just more interesting music from white rockers but fascinating stuff from Hanni El Khatib, Bombino, Black Joe Lewis, and Gary Clark Jr.—the last a clue that Apple Music has some expansive sense of genre and style, rather than just an association between artists, labels, and producers.
  • I tried to make this easier by setting up a Howlin’ Wolf radio station. What I got from Spotify and Rdio both was lousy, not just almost entirely Howlin’ Wolf, but they kept giving me the overrated, crappy London Session with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. Apple Music started with “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy,” then segued to “Rockin’ Daddy” from the London Session. I tagged that track with the indication not to play it again, so Apple responded with Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed, Magic Sam, Skip James, Charley Patton, Elmore James—what a Howlin’ Wolf radio station should be!
  • Then I built a station from a single track, “La sveglia” from Alessandro Cortini’s fantastic new release, Risveglio. I was hoping for focussed, strong electronic sounds, what I got from Rdio was mostly Cortini and Front Line Assembly, from Spotify it was Cortini and different Trent Reznor soundtracks, along with something awful from Holly Stell, while from Apple Music it was some Cortini and a mix of welcome music from Emptyset, Blindfoldfreak, Tropic of Cancer, Pyle Corner Audio, and others.
  • You may have noticed that there’s no examples of how Tidal radio works. That’s because if you start a radio station in Tidal from Benjamin Booker or Howlin’ Wolf or Alessandro Cortini, you get music from the artist, and nothing more. No connections to other musicians or other styles. Nothing.

Playlists: Why are Apple’s radio stations so much better? It’s because their playlists are so much better. Spotify, Rdio and Tidal collect music in the most superficial way. Tidal advertises that they have exclusive playlists, put together by artists. They are is clearly putting together playlists themselves and then licensing the artist’s name, because their playlists are shitty and depressing, exhibiting the kind of taste one would expect from from the clichéd figure of the record executive—shallow, narrow, with a sense of cool that’s 2–5 years past its sell-by date.

Tidal is so sad and so awful, it may be, in terms of who is behind it and the way its been sold, the worst consumer product ever made. It is the the ne plus ultra of the corporate conglomerate record label, with the inflated costs and lack of taste to prove it. Is this Jay-Z’s design, or has he handed it off to managerial types? I can’t decide which is worse.

In contrast, Apple, as Jimmy Iovine has claimed, puts in the time and thought to make playlists that are musically meaningful. Based on the results of their radio stations, and the type of playlists that Apple produces when you give it some idea of your favorite music, this appears to be true. I’m sure they use some algorithms to gather together a large pool of music, but there’s informed human taste involved. For example, through activating Apple Music, trying radio stations, and tagging music as a favorite, when I go to the Apple Music portal, I get a selection of playlists that include Eric Dolphy, Art Pepper, Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, “Leonard Bernstein’s Mahler,” Harold Budd, Art Blakey, Hendrix, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Fennesz, Tchaikovsky, “Outkast: Influences,” and a list they call “Skronk Freakout” that includes Last Exit, Spy vs. Spy, and Nels Cline and Gregg Bendian. They put Tim Hecker with Swans and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. This is a fraction of all the playlists they are showing me. Farhood Manjoo has his music to accompany his coffee drinking, I have a field of riches to explore:

screenshot-2015-08-18-10-33-30

There are interface details which can be important, depending on the listener. The most important one for me is track-breaks: music tracks are sequenced, which normally means there is a break between tracks. But for a lot of classical music (and some pop music, like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band-and no, you cannot stream The Beatles anywhere), music split into tracks is meant to be played continuously. When I am listening to the Sibelius Symphony No. 7, in four continuous movements, I expect the music to play without any breaks, and that’s how it streams at Apple Music and Spotify. Rdio, however, puts breaks between all tracks of every single record it holds. That means that not only will the music stop momentarily between the Adagio and Vivacissimo of the Sibelius, but between every opera recitative and ritornello and the following aria or ensemble, between every bit of applause that ends a song on a live album and the continued applause on the front of the next track—you get the picture. I personally find this intrusive and disruptive, and there’s no way on the user end to change this.

I fine Rdio’s interface the most pleasant, but that’s minor. I have no complaints about Spotify’s. Apple Music runs through iTunes, which is always buggy. One place where Rdio is disappointing is in track details. On Spotify, I can see the movement information on each track of this Haydn String Quartets collection:

At Rdio all I see are the tempo markings—I don’t know which piece is actually being played.

https://rd.io/i/Rl5LV8k-HF7w/

Rdio does have one thing that the other’s don’t, which is searching by label, or using a label link. This is an incredibly useful feature, one I can’t imagine would be difficult to implement at Spotify or Apple.

Sharing music

This is actually an important part of streaming. Spotify and Rdio connect directly to social media, and if your friends use a service you can see what they are listening to, and that’s a useful way to find new music. Apple Music does not have this type of support.

Another way to share is to broadcast push your listening out to social media accounts. How that looks on those accounts varies from meaninglessly obscure to informative and attractive. Spotify is useless at this, sending out a short URL link that has absolutely no information about the music. Rdio is better, as they provide the title and, on Facebook, show a playable interface with cover image, and Apple Music does this as well, with the added value that the cover image show up in tweets. Their result is the most attractive, though not well-integrated

Other considerations

Apple Music has a built-in advantage for anyone using iTunes Match (as I am)—your entire iTunes music collection (up to 25,000 tracks and eventually expanding to 100,000) is available to you through Apple Music through any device that can connect to the internet and has iTunes/iOS Music (note this is not yet available worldwide). If you have room in your iTunes Match, and turn on iCloud Music Library, you can add music from Apple Music directly to your own library. That’s pretty handy.

Spotify has some built-in advantages as well, although these matter only if you use certain other applications. For example, the djay app connects to your Spotify account, so if you want to DJ with your computer or iPhone or iPad, and use Spotify, you have a huge amount of material to choose from! Also, Spotify integrates with the IFTT service, which you can use to automate certain tasks and connect certain applications. For example, you can add a track to playlist by typing a note on your iPhone, or make a list of saved songs in Evernote.

Conclusion

For me, Apple Music is an easy choice, but not the only one. It’s important to me to have as extensive a catalog as possible, so I will also continue to use Spotify, at least until the Apple Music catalog matches it. It is also important to me to see what other people, whose taste I admire, are listening to, I always want to explore new things.

As I began thinking about this and writing it, I assumed that my second service would be Rdio, which I’ve been enjoying. My heart has been telling me that Rdio is more worthy than Spotify. But once I started the research, and writing out my thoughts, I could no longer ignore the Rdio’s flaws. For classical music particularly, they botch or simply fail to do so many fundamental things. Spotify is actually pretty strong, and I applaud them for going to the premium-only model, like Apple—as a listener, spend some money on music. The problems with their service should be simple to fix, if only they cared. Since they don’t, I don’t care to give them any more of my money.

UPDATE:

I was recently traveling in Central Europe for two weeks, and when it was time to get some music streaming, the iOS Music app on my iPhone 5 crashed constantly when I tried to download anything to the phone itself, while the Spotify app worked like a charm, no problems at all. What is missing from the Spotify app, though, is an easy way to find the music that is locally downloaded.

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One thought on “Crossing the Streams: Streaming Services in Review

  1. Excellent article, thank you for the thorough analysis, which confirms many of my suspicions. Just a small note: you report that Spotify and Apple Music don’t have a search by label option. As a matter of fact, Spotify does have this, although it’s not advertised (perhaps because it’s occasionally buggy for longer composite names): all you have to do is search for “label: labelname”.
    Try it with our label (shameless plug alert), by entering “label: trovarobato”!

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