Thought Apple and Google were going to sit idly by while music fans debated Spotify vs. Rdio vs. Pandora? Nope. Last month at Google I/O, the search giant announced that it too was launching a streaming music service, which pulls heavily from the three aforementioned startups. Today, it was Apple's turn.
Despite holding out for 10 years—Steve Jobs was adamant that consumers want to own their music, not rent it—Apple announced its much-expected, long-awaited streaming music service, iTunes Radio, at its Worldwide Developers Conference today.
Make no mistake, it’s not the kind of streaming service we've grown so accustomed to, where you can listen to any music you want for free, a la Spotify, Rdio or Google Play All Access. It’s internet radio that works very, very similarly to Pandora, algorithmically selecting songs based on your feedback and preferences.
iTunes Radio (built into Apple's iOS 7 music app and available on all its devices) shows featured radio stations to start out with, and offers the option to create your own stations. You can sort by genre, songs trending on Twitter, and share stations with friends. You can customize stations as they play—selecting "more songs like this"—making it more interactive than Pandora, but less so than Google's radio feature, which lets you drag and drop to rearrange the playlist order or delete songs off it.
Aside from this nifty, if not shocking functionality, there are other key differences between iTunes Radio and Pandora worth noting. One, Apple’s version is free with ads, but with no option of an ad-free subscription model. (The exception is for folks who already subscribe to iTunes Match at $24/year; they don’t have to sit through ads between songs.)
Two, right off the bat Apple probably knows your music tastes better than Pandora, because it has access to all the music in your iTunes library or iTunes Match, and has been running the “Genius” tool that combs through your library to create playlists based on genres since 2008.
Three, and most telling, iTunes Radio includes a "buy" option for each track, to encourage downloads. While a song is playing, the price to purchase and download the track appears in the top right corner. It seems Apple isn’t entirely giving in to future of digital music—still holding on to Jobs-era ownership model that defined the early days of online listening and was quickly out-innovated. (Apple is also throwing artists and labels a bone by pushing toward downloading, and by giving artists a cut of ad revenue.)
So, yet another par-for-the-course streaming music service has entered the marketplace—albeit with some big-name cred behind it. Though the services in this crowded space share a lot in common, there are subtle yet crucial differences. Which to choose? It depends on your specific needs and habits as an online music consumer. Let’s break it down.
IF YOU WANT TO BE ABLE TO LISTEN TO ANYTHING
All the major streaming services have catalogs of millions of songs. But to hardcore music consumers, the littlest thing—like searching for an obscure track and coming up short or getting served up repeat songs on your favorite radio station—could tip the scale enough to switch to another company.
Since Sony finally signed on with Apple last week, the company has deals with all the major record labels, as do Spotify, Rdio and All Access, and all boast having thousands of indie labels, too. (A Spotify spokesperson said it has more than 300,000 labels total.)
Pandora operates under a compulsory license, so doesn't have any direct deals with labels. This means it's paying a pre-determined royalty instead of negotiating a specific deal with the label. The upside is that it's a better payout for artists. The downside is that it limits Pandora's functionality. For example, it has a limited amount of songs you can skip, and Pandora pays labels for these skipped songs. Google and Apple's direct deals with labels allow for unlimited skipping.
By the numbers, the differences aren't stark. So the losers in this category are the services that focus on radio and discovery over sheer options. The iTunes catalog has 26 million tracks; Spotify and Rdio have around 20 million. All Access has 18 million songs available for purchase in its store, the majority of which are also available streaming. They haven't released a specific number yet. (Pro tip: Rdio lets you request a song or album they don't have. Pretty cool.)
IF YOU WANT TO OWN THE MUSIC
Back to Jobs’s prediction. By the definition of “own” circa-2004—an mp3 downloaded to your hard drive that you can burn onto a disk or whatever—iTunes is still the lone wolf here. But the new way to "own" music is to create a personalized collection that exists in the cloud or web app—a capability that All Access, Spotify and Rdio all offer. Really, the only distinction between web-based collections and downloading files is the ability to play songs across any device, or without an internet connection. Which leads us to the next point.
IF YOU WANT TO BE ABLE TO LISTEN OFFLINE
Streaming has limitations, and being able to listen to music even in the absence of a wifi or 3G connection is crucial. Not only for us New Yorkers that spend our most valuable listening hours in WiFi-less underground subway tunnels, but because sometimes your internet connection sucks, and bandwidth is limited.
Spotify, Rdio and All Access all have an offline playback option (though only available if you shell out for the monthly subscription fee.) They all work similarly: You can select certain songs, albums or playlists to be available in offline mode and sync them to your mobile device. You can do this for as many songs as your phone or tablet’s memory will allow. A 10 GB phone will hold about 2,000 songs. Spotify’s app can cache and store up to 3,333 songs.
Pandora doesn't offer offline listening, nor has it mentioned any future plans to add the feature. iTunes iRadio’s version of offline, as of now, is to let you buy and download the song. Sigh.
As I’ve written before, the player we’ll see emerge as the leader in this muddled industry will be the one that can consolidate all these features into one user-friendly service. Because of course we want it all. Judging by that standard, Apple’s announcement today was a non-starter. The real win for Apple with this new service is—as it was for its rival, Google—keeping people loyal to the Apple ecosystem, and maybe proving it can do cool things other than hardware. It may not earn much money for Apple, as CNET pointed out, and it probably won’t change the game for music creators. It's just about getting a piece of the pie.