A “new” streaming contender – Pandora

Early on when I began to listen to streaming music, I got a Pandora account. Probably 2011 or 2012. At first, it was the only solution, and I listened, but I found that the depth of their catalog “felt” weak. Radio stations would repeat songs often, and it just fell off the radar.

Spotify, and then the Google / Apple offerings came along, and I was satisfied. So I seriously hadn’t even fired up Pandora in a long time. Like in two iPhone refreshes (that is 4 years).

But, a few days ago, I was cleaning up my iPhone’s apps, and I saw that the Pandora app had just refreshed. I figured “what the f*ck” and fired it up.

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Music Streaming Services Revisited

In the last installment, I had raved wildly about Apple’s then new ‘Music’ service. Same price as Spotify, filled some holes that Spotify had in their library, and since they have my entire collection in their cloud, they have the inside track on offering suggestions that I will enjoy.

Add to that the fact that Spotify’s curated playlists had been somewhat stale and I was sold. Even before the first month of the three month Apple Music trial, I was ready to cut the Spotify cord.

However, I didn’t, and today I am increasingly glad I didn’t.

Apple Music is still a great service, and more than a credible competitor. The selection is large, and their “For You” recommendations rock. A constantly updated set of playlists that are eerily on target to my listening habits (and no recommendations for things that are completely out of my taste – like hip-hop or country).

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Spotify – It’s Over

Apple Music has won my latest battle for my ears. As is often the case, Apple isn’t first to market (or even second), but when they do get to market, they have the best service, most polished interface, and it “just works“. After only 3 weeks of my 3 month trial, it is time to dump Spotify.

Dear Spotify,

I know this may be hard to take, but it is time to move on from your service. It isn’t you, it’s me. Wait, who am I kidding, it is you and the shortcomings you have. I can’t blame you, as I am sure that some of it is due to your agreements with the rights’ holders. But regardless, it is time to say “goodbye“.

I remember when Spotify came to the US, and I eagerly got in the early access list. The thought of access to a huge library of music, with the ability to sample as much as I wanted whenever I wanted. At the time, the only other option were the Internet Radio stations, and while I liked Pandora, I found that it took endless grooming of their stations to match my tastes.

With your service, I could create as many playlists with just the music I wanted. No limit on how often I could listen to the same songs. It was like having my library wherever I went.

I jumped at the chance to pay for the service, never once questioning the $10 a month. The Spotify app for my iPhone was a great way to take my tunes with me.

There were some second guesses along the way. Google’s Play music service when they launched the “All Access” subscription was briefly a contender. They had good coverage of genre’s in my taste in their library. Plus they had the benefit of having my entire music library uploaded. But alas, their streaming performance, uh, what is the term? Yes, “it sucked donkey balls“. Skips, pauses, and general shitty-ness. Even when they released a Chrome extension to better integrate it, it sucked.

So I returned to Spotify after flirting with the $2 a month cheaper Google All Access service.

I was satisfied, but there were still some issues. Your curated playlists for classic rock, and hard rock were stale. Worse yet, had some odd selections (note: in no universe does the Foo Fighters qualify as “Classic Rock”) Listening for hours each day, you quickly hear your “radio” stations repeat tracks. Yeah, I get that they are just a play list with some randomness tossed in, but I buy my music and listen to my library to not have the top 40 bullshit crammed down my throat.

The final nail in the coffin was the launch of Apple’s new streaming service. I am about 3 weeks into my 3 months free trial, but I already know that it will be the one that I keep. There are lots of reasons, but off the top of my head I have noticed:

  • The curated playlists are great. It is like they can read my mind, when I am trying to put together a mix CD. Doesn’t matter the genre, Heavy Metal, Classic Rock, Guitar Heros, Jazz, Blues, they nail it.
  • The “For You” Suggested listenings. Like when I was a Pandora user, if you painstakingly groom your stations, their algorithms pick some awesome tunes. The “For You” selections are a few suggested playlists rolled out and refreshed daily. Each day, there are some great things to listen to, playlists that are 70 – 90 minutes long. Last Wednesday, it offered up Deep Tracks of Yes. 90 minutes of outstanding music.
  • I have access to my entire library. Minor point, (or maybe it is major) but my entire collection of music is in the Apple cloud, so if I feel like digging up an ancient Yngwie Malmsteen track from his first album, it is there. So even where Spotify had holes (like for the longest time with AC/DC, or still with Paul Gilbert) I can just call it up.
  • User experience. A lot of people bag on iTunes. Hell, on Windows, I will concede that it blows chunks. However, the last two major revisions Apple has done a lot to improve the usability, and reduce the clutter. As a product manager, I know that iterative releases, and the tendency to glom shit into the main application is hard to battle, so clearly iTunes had become a multi-headed hydra. But it is getting a lot better.

While I could afford to keep two streaming services going, I am not going to lie, I haven’t fired up Spotify in over 2 weeks. It has already lost the battle.

From the outside looking in, I am not even sure that I could offer advice as to how to improve the service to beat Apple’s Music. I suspect that you will have a valid market position for the people who loathe Apple and all things it releases. But will that be enough to keep you close enough to profitable? Time will tell, but my bet is that Spotify will try mightily, but fail to grow to be consistently profitable.

Music Services: Google Play (and All Access)

Part two in the online music services reviews. Today, it is Google Play and its All Access “Subscription” service.

In 2011 when Google announced Play and their music service, my hopes were high. I was an early adopter (from when you needed an invite to join Gmail), and I assumed Google would rock this. You could store your music in their services, and play it anywhere. Up to a whopping 20,000 tracks.

It seemed awesome. So I downloaded the sync application for both my personal Mac, as well as my PC. In about a week, all of my library was on the Google service.

Of course, there were wrinkles. If I synced something from both iTunes, and from my PC, one was in .m4a, and one was .mp3. One would think Google would know this and not duplicate the album/track.

You would think wrong.

You would think that they would have some facility to view duplicates, and allow you to clean them up.

Again, you would think wrong. So to clean your collection you have to manually delete the albums.

Early on, the quality of their streaming was sketchy. There were glitches aplenty. Hitches, drop outs, and freezes, all plagued playback. Google relied on their HTML5 wizardry, and their back end cloud infrastructures. Regardless of their technical prowess, there were plenty of glitches, and other things that detracted from listening enjoyment.

In 2013, Google launched the “All Play” streaming on demand service to counter Spotify. I tried it (and even paid to subscribe for a few months). Like the rest of the Google music experience, it was clumsy, and plagued with glitches. In my initial attempt to ditch Spotify, I gave it a good run, but Spotify’s application and streaming quality slaughtered Google.

In 2015, Google upped the number of tunes you can store on their site to 50,000, but alas, I have moved on.

As an avowed Apple disciple, you might be tempted to passing this off on fanboyism. However, I did buy a Nexus 7 tablet, to give Android in its purest state a try. Google Music on that device was just as clunky to use.

There is an app for the Chrome browser that helps navigate, but it still doesn’t match the performance of Spotify.

(“Google Play Music icon” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Google_Play_Music_icon.png#/media/File:Google_Play_Music_icon.png)

Music Streaming – conclusion

TL;DR version: Spotify wins

To round out the saga, I needed to make a decision on whether to keep Google  All-Access or Spotify for my online streaming pleasure. If you recall, I signed up for a trial of the Google all access, and was comparing it to Spotify.  While I am an Apple fan, I am not sure their entry this fall into an ad sponsored offering is going to be worth my time. (Perhaps if it was free with my iTunes match subscription …) Primarily, it is because I need to use it on my windows machines as well as my Mac, my iPhone and my Android tablet. iTunes sucks donkey balls on the PC, so unless Apple does something amazing, I am discounting it without trying it.

Early on, Google All Access was plagued by the glitches that I experienced with my tunes in their database. Skips, pauses, and long halts in playing. Spotify pulled into the lead, because their dedicated application was really solid, and whatever magic they do buffering, it has almost no issues (except when my crappy work network connection flakes out).  But about 2 weeks ago, Google got their streaming act together, and it became solid. Almost as reliable as Spotify.

However, I am going to stick to my Spotify premium account, and turn off the all access.  While it is $2 cheaper, and it is better integrated with my Android tablet, the Spotify apps make the difference. A quality user experience across platforms, coupled with great streaming, and a good catalog. Spotify FTW.

Aside: One thing that I never did much of was use the radio option of spotify. I compared the radio option of Google All Access versus spotify, and I like the selections of the Spotify radio stations a wee bit better than on All Access.  Both services have holes in their catalog (due to licensing issues, I would believe), but points in All Access’s favor is that since I have all the Led Zeppelin and Paul Gilbert tracks (legally) they get in to the mix. But that isn’t enough to save its bacon.

Winner: Spotify