I compared streaming services to my soul
Spotify vs. Apple vs. Pandora vs. Cesium vs. Tidal vs. Emotion
A year ago I finally joined Spotify, the original on-demand music streaming service. It was time to eliminate the “sync life” between my phone and my computer, and while I was worried about how I would listen to rarities or collections that are unavailable to stream, I figured the overwhelming convenience would make up for those smaller issues. I was wrong.
I found myself staring at the search bar, waiting for the right album or artist to come to mind
With it’s green on black aesthetic, Spotify has never been the prettiest service. But I was willing to accept this when I joined Spotify, mostly because their major competitor — Apple Music — was very buggy on my Android phone at the time. After a year though, Spotify’s look and UI finally broke me. I found myself staring at the search bar, waiting for the right album or artist to come to mind. I began to miss the iPod era and its simple and intimate collection of music. Most of all, I felt disconnected from the relationship I had built with my library. And so, in the spring of 2017 I began my search for a replacement.
Longing to return to a simpler time, I searched for an app that could best replicate the days of the iPod. What a found was Cesium. A clean, simple to use app dedicated to the principle that the “sync life” was the best life, Cesium is a breath of fresh air for audiophiles looking for an elegant way to listen to their local files on a modern device. With features that harken back to the original built-in iOS music app, it also offers a nice selection of customization options. But Cesium is not without its drawbacks either. Despite its simplicity, the app can be slow to load, and while it strips away most of the add-ons that the default iOS music app forces on users, it still includes an audiobook player. This isn’t necessarily bad, but Cesium’s audiobook player inexplicably lacks the ability to adjust playback speed. Deal breaker.
Cesium is a breath of fresh air for audiophiles looking for an elegant way to listen to their local files on a modern device
Ultimately, what drew me to Cesium is what sent me packing. The iPod era is easy to look at with rose-colored glasses, but “sync life” should be limited to the most dire of situations.
While I was using Cesium, a little service called Pandora made some news: on-demand streaming called Pandora Premium. Once touted as the dream for streaming music, Pandora has somewhat fallen to the wayside in the wake of Spotify and the realization that we actually like to listen to music we know and love, and, you know, occasionally a full album like the artist intended. Upon its arrival, most tech journalists declared the service well-designed and attractive, so I decided to give it a go.
Overall, I agreed with the media’s assessment. Stylish and modest, at first blush I had big hopes for Pandora Premium. Compared to the Spotify app, Pandora designed a very pleasant and clean experience. The app loads onto the My Music tab, which can be filtered to show just the albums, artists, playlists, or what-have-you that you’ve saved. A search bar at the top makes it easy to find the content you’d like to save to your personal library, and the controls for downloading or saving are much more accessible here than on Spotify.
If I want to avoid search bar paralysis, am I supposed to build a personal library with only a smartphone app and a few hours to spare?
But I have run into a few content gaps, including my first search which yielded zero accurate results for the Master of None season two soundtrack. Also, Pandora’s insistence that you still want to use your old Pandora radio stations is very annoying. More than once I accidentally created a station and then had to remove it from the My Music tab. Pandora Premium is also a little half-cooked, lacking desktop, laptop, or web apps. Apparently a web app is under development, but that may be too little too late. If I want to avoid search bar paralysis, am I supposed to build a personal library with only a smartphone app and a few hours to spare? This might not be such a daunting task with a desktop app (it was only a partial nightmare on Spotify), but I’m not going to waste my time on a project of that scale with nothing but my phone.
From a business perspective, here’s the only legitimate competitor to Spotify. Full disclaimer: I tried Apple Music when it was announced and, while initially excited, I was ultimately underwhelmed. Apple invented the legal online music business, and their products have a widely-appreciated attention to detail, but the early version of Apple Music that I tried was pretty disappointing from a design perspective. For this reason, I had been hesitant to go into these woods once more.
I was wrong. Apple Music is slick and much better than it was at launch. I’m not in love with the bold black typography on the stark white background, but overall the new look is a welcome change. Beyond appearances, the newest iteration of Apple Music is also better organized. Banishing the Connect feature and refining For You and Browse make the app easier to use to find new music, but Apple was considerate enough to keep your library front and center. In my opinion, Beats 1 is still not a killer feature, but neither is it a deterrent from using the service.
Bottom line: if iTunes causes you problems, Apple Music won’t solve them
Of course, there are little headaches with Apple Music. First, the app digs up every weird iTunes purchase you ever made and presents them as if they’re local files on your device. To free yourself, you’ll need to delete them one by one. Also, while the smartphone app has stripped away videos, podcasts, audiobooks, and the iTunes Store into separate apps, for a desktop experience you still have to fire up iTunes. To many, especially for Windows users, iTunes has become a bloated monster. Personally, I have come to live with iTunes by simply hiding a number of the “features.” I may also suffer fewer bugs and lag because I’m running the app in the latest macOS iteration. Bottom line: if iTunes causes you problems, Apple Music won’t solve them. Still, if you’ve bought in to Apple’s ecosystem with an iPhone, a MacBook, or maybe an iPad, Apple Music is an easy option on the whole.
I liked Apple Music and I considered ending my search there (at least for awhile). But then I decided I would write this article, and maybe I should address the final major player. Tidal shot to cultural awareness after being purchased by Jay-Z in 2015. Since then, it has remained relevant (although not necessarily successful) with a series of album exclusives from Kanye West, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and others.
I recognize that high quality music is a key feature for some, but I don’t think it really matters to most people listening to music on-the-go with $35 earbuds
As I see it, Tidal has two major selling points: exclusives and high quality music. But I’m going to dismiss high quality music from this assessment. I recognize that high quality music is a key feature for some, but I don’t think it really matters to most people listening to music on-the-go with $35 earbuds. If that was the only standout feature of the service, it would still be meant for a niche audience, and having Jay-Z as a pitchman doesn’t change that. Exclusives have also brought the service attention, but lately it has become increasingly clear that record labels are no longer interested in offering these kinds of deals. What will that change mean for Tidal’s strategy?
But that’s all the politics and business of streaming. What about the app? It’s fine. Visually similar to Spotify but swapping the neon green highlights for neon blue highlights, the look isn’t really for me. Points against it for burying the My Music tab and cluttering the interface up with a lot of video content. A web app is nice to have, but the larger screen area doesn’t make up for the fact that the service feels like it’s taking too much on at a time. And while Tidal’s library is considerable, music that isn’t from the Jay-Z club of artists was almost never offered up to me without searching for it. Ultimately, I was perhaps too distracted by the idea that Tidal might not survive much longer to give it a fair shake. (If there are any Tidal enthusiasts who have a passion for some feature I’ve failed to mention, I’m all ears.)
The Wrap Up
So where does all of this leave us? In the end, Apple Music is my favorite, but it still has major flaws. It’s clean but not clean enough. It has a lot of music, but not everything. It’s easy to use, except iTunes. Pandora Premium was also a standout, but I worry that it may have arrived too late for it to ever achieve the same level of reach that Spotify and Apple can offer.
If you care about your music like I do, the best you can get from these services is ease of access
But my real take away is this: for power users of iTunes or MusicBee, streaming just isn’t there yet, and I’m not sure it ever will be. Allow me to explain by, briefly, outlining the history of collecting music. First, people collected vinyl, then 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and finally .mp3s. In every format iteration, collecting was a personal and permanent experience. From bins to music managers, collecting has been as key to an audiophile’s identity as listening to the music itself. The iPod era really expanded this too, allowing people to create collections of thousands of albums without giving up an entire wall. For those of us who spent hours upon hours curating and polishing our digital libraries, even our physical collections of CDs and vinyl may never be as intimate.
On-demand streaming music is convenient, but it’s still not personal. If you care about your music like I do, the best you can get from these services is ease of access. You’ll need to supplement the emotional connection elsewhere.
H.G. Blakeman is a graphic designer and copywriter based in the Pacific Northwest. He designs print and web graphics, fonts, and logos, as well as experimenting with photography and abstract painting.