Get Your Tunes On the Go: Top Music Subscription Services

June 24, 2015

Just before the turn of the 21st century, the music industry reached a turning point. Up until then, popular music was sold and consumed in largely the same way it had been for many decades—through hard copies of recordings. Few predicted how the Internet would shift the way music would be bought—or pirated—by consumers. The turning point was the release of the peer-to-peer music sharing software program Napster, along with the increase in people with access to high speed Internet -- especially among college students living in dormitories. In fact, some colleges reported up to 61% of their bandwidth was being taken up by students downloading music on Napster.

Although Napster shut down in mid-2001, the paradigm had shifted. In the ensuing years, the music industry’s attempt to change course was a bit like if the Titanic had tried to dodge the iceberg after it was already on the floor of the Atlantic. However, by 2013 Time Magazine reported an increase in revenue for the music industry for the first time since 1999. It took almost a decade and a half, but it appeared the industry had finally adapted to life in the digital world. Today, digital sales account for 39% of industry revenues, or $5.9 billion in 2013.

For consumers, it means the ways they access music have changed substantially from 15 years ago, or even a decade ago, when portable digital media players like Apple’s iPod dominated the listening landscape, only to be swept away by 3G and now 4G smartphones.

In the age of apps, streaming services like Pandora, iTunes Radio, Last.FM, and Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio offer listeners a myriad of internet radio stations based on artists or genres, with the catch being advertisements or a limited playlist. Alternatively, premium subscription services—despite Steve Jobs’ prediction—have recently seen growth. Many of these sites offer a combination of free and paid services. According to a survey conducted earlier this year by Edison Research, here are the top audio streaming services, along with some of their prices and features (informed, in part, by a list created by Time.com):

Pandora - $5/month for Pandora One
Still one of the most popular of the many streaming services, it’s pretty much synonymous with the concept of streaming music. The free service lets you stream channels populated with songs based on artists and other songs you enjoy. You can indicate whether you like a particular song, hide a song altogether if you’re sick of it, and skip a limited number of songs per hour. If you’re listening too long, Pandora will pause to avoid playing music when nobody’s listening. At $5/month it offers an ad-free experience with more (but not unlimited) skips, longer periods before timeouts, and better (but not the best) quality than you get with the free version. One of the service’s biggest drawbacks, however, is its comparatively small 1.5 million song library.

iHeart Radio – Free
Formally known as Clear Channel Communications, this brand includes hundreds of radio stations across the country -- many of which are popular here in Colorado. Their foray into Internet radio, then, makes a great deal of sense. Their app is free, and like Pandora it creates Internet radio stations based on artists and songs you like. Unlike Pandora, their free app lacks any ads. It also includes the live radio stations already operating under the iHeart Radio brand. With a song library of 18 million songs, there’s a lot more variety than Pandora, but you’re at the whim of what a national commercial radio company thinks you might be interested in listening to.

Spotify – Free
Spotify Premium – $10/month (discounts available)

The name Spotify is somewhat synonymous with the concept of on-demand music streaming. Started in 2008, it grew quickly and by 2015 boasted 45 million users, 15 million of whom pay a monthly subscription for premium features. With the growth of subscribers, Spotify slowly restricted the amount of time users could listen for free. Another unique aspect of Spotify was the ability for users to share their music (for better or worse, depending on your taste) with friends on Facebook and Twitter. Currently, for mobile users the app is similar to the other online radio services above, with the main difference being the ability to play a single artist on shuffle rather than many different artists in a specific genre. Users hear ads, and can skip a limited number of tracks. Premium subscribers get the on-demand features that made the original Spotify such a success, as well as better quality and the ability to download music to listen to while offline. If you’re a student, or you have a family with multiple listeners, discounts of up to 50% off the regular price are available.

iTunes Radio + iTunes Match – $25/year
Beats Music – $10/month or $100/year
Apple Music - $10/month

At its recent Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple confirmed the widespread rumors: the company that changed the game when it came to selling music digitally is getting in on the streaming action with Apple Music. The service, which will be available to Android users as well as owners of the 61 million iPhones Apple sold last quarter(!), will be an on-demand streaming service similar to Spotify. The catalog size will be most (but not all) of the 26 million songs available for purchase on iTunes. It will also provide users with live online radio stations with guest DJs like Pharell and Drake. It’s unclear how Apple Music will affect customers of Apple’s existing streaming products, but here’s a rundown of what is still offered, though it could be on borrowed time:

iTunes Radio is similar to Pandora, only it runs off of the pre-installed Music app on every device running iOS. Considering iPhones have the biggest market share of any smartphone, it’s not surprising it’s as popular as it is. iTunes Match is a premium service offering Apple users the ability to access their music collection anywhere they have access to iCloud. Beats Music is one of the properties Apple acquired from when it bought Beats by Dr. Dre in 2013, and is an on-demand streaming service offering access to a library of 20 million songs. Beats also offers users the ability to access to playlists professionally curated by the likes of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.

Amazon Music – Comes with Amazon Prime membership ($100/year)

Amazon is a company whose name and brand are virtually synonymous with online commerce (and if you’re a regular shopper on Amazon, this may be the route to take). Rather than offer it a la carte, Amazon has made music streaming a part of their brand-centralized premium subscription service called Amazon Prime. Along with unlimited access to their library of streaming video content, thousands of books, and free two-day shipping on products ordered through their warehouses, subscribers also get access to streaming music. Users combine their library of music purchased through Amazon with about 1 million other tracks. One of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of new songs, with a typical delay of about six months between release date and appearance on the service. This lack of music discovery could be a turn-off for some, but if you’re already a Prime member then it’s just icing on the cake.

Rhapsody Premier - $10/month
UnRadio - $5/month

One of the companies still associated with the Napster brand, Rhapsody has been around for more than a decade. Similar to Spotify Premium and Beats Audio, subscribers get ad-free, on-demand access to a massive library of 32 million songs with the ability to download music for offline listening. A hybrid of sorts, Rhapsody also provides access to live radio stations like iHeart Radio, and offers “music experts” similar to Beats Music’s curators. Rhapsody also provides a service much like Pandora One (it’s the same price point) but with unlimited skips. If you’re not a picky listener, Unradio may be the way to go.

Google Play Music - $10/month

In a way, this is Google’s answer to iTunes Radio/Match and Spotify all in one go. The app comes pre-loaded on all Android phones, and users can already use it to put their own music in the cloud without paying a premium fee. Subscribers get unlimited access to a library of 30 million songs, many of which are brand new releases. If they have their own library, they can upload 20,000 songs to the cloud, or download full albums for offline listening. Like other apps, it also has customizable radio stations playing tracks based on your listening habits. What might set Google Play Music apart from others, though, is the fact that Google owns YouTube. According to results from Nielsen, teens prefer YouTube to the radio for listening to music, and it was the third-most popular method for adults. Google is now offering something called YouTube Music Key, which lets users skip ads on YouTube music videos. This service is included in a Google Play Music subscription. Additionally, the app allows you to play a music video for the song you’re listening to if one is available.