Spotify vs. Apple Music (Why I Can’t Switch)

Maybe I’ve been making some bad assumptions. Or maybe not. I assume that people have been working on their digital music collections in iTunes for 10 or 15 years now — fine-tuning, massaging, adding and deleting, doing their best to re-create and expand the LP/CD/cassette collections they’ve maintained all their lives. I assume that people have at some point spent a good chunk of time digitizing their LP and CD collections, perfecting the metadata in them, getting the album covers and genres and recording years exactly right. I assume that people’s digital music collections include thousands of albums, and tens of thousands of tracks. And for audiophiles wanting to preserve audio quality without compromise, I assume that many people have digitized their collections in lossless format.

And because Spotify wasn’t available in the U.S. until 2011, I assume that for almost all music lovers, those collections existed almost exclusively in their iTunes collections practically since the beginning of digital file-based audio, representing years of hard curation work.

When iTunes added streaming access to 40 million tracks in the cloud, and simultaneously let us upload all of our obscure/out-of-print LP and CD rips into the same cloud service so that they could co-exist in perfect harmony, all for $10/month, I was over the moon. Finally Apple had nailed it — the best of both worlds — modern streaming perfection, without giving up access to my life’s work or needing to convert anything from one format or service to another.

I assumed wrong.

Increasingly, I find myself in the minority, as “an old” who is the only iTunes/Apple Music holdout in the workplace. But why? Both services offer the same 40 million streaming tracks. They both pay human curators to manage a ton of custom playlists and stations. They both work either on desktop or on the phone. They both let you download music for offline use. But iTunes does so much more than Spotify!

Side-by-Side

I just spent parts of the past two weeks living with Spotify, trying to find obscure albums in Spotify (many fails), trying to upload my existing collection (many foibles), exploring its human-curated offerings, and enjoying the interface. Some notes I took during the process:

  • To audiophile ears, and with the right equipment, Apple Music appears to have much better fidelity than Spotify (stop right there!).
  • iTunes lets you create “Smart Playlists” that are query driven, so you can keep self-managing playlists of everything from the 1930s or the 1960s or the 2010s, or everything from “these three genres” or everything that you imported from vinyl sources, or everything with a given comment string in the metadata, etc. I get a huge amount of mileage from Smart Playlists — but there is no equivalent feature in Spotify.
A handful of the Smart Playlists I rely on in iTunes — no equivalent functionality in Spotify!
  • While both services let you upload your existing collection into the cloud for access from anywhere, iTunes makes the process far more straightforward and seamless (I found the process with Spotify awkward and unreliable, with lots of missing/scrambled cover art, albums that were uploaded intact arriving in the cloud as if assembled from multiple compilations, etc. — it did not respect all the organizational metadata work I’ve done over time).
  • iTunes lets you edit your tracks’ metadata (including cover art), whether it’s part of your uploaded collection or part of their collection. Spotify does not.
  • iTunes lets you change the “view” of any slice of your collection, from Album cover grid view to simple track listing to enhanced “Playlist” mode, etc. (Yes, Spotify has an Albums view but that’s not what I mean — If I’m viewing a Playlist I want the ability to view that playlist in any of several modes!)
  • iTunes lets you shuffle your entire collection from any view (if this is possible in Spotify, I don’t see how — if I go into Albums view in Spotify, how do I start a track-based random shuffle of all my albums?).
  • iTunes lets you rate and “Favorite” tracks so you can create custom smart playlists of just your favorite tracks in a certain genre, for example. No equivalent functionality in Spotify.
Smart Playlists are so powerful — arbitrary query complexity.
  • iTunes lets you view your precious cover art at any resolution — even full-screen on a second desktop! Spotify’s cover art view seems to be limited to a tiny thumbnail. When I was digitizing the collections, I was committed never to store art at a resolution lower than 1000x1000px. I personally photographed and scanned many hundreds of LPs and CDs to make this happen. All of that work would be wasted if I switched to Spotify.
iTunes lets me view cover art at any size, and free-floating cover art windows double as playback controllers. Not possible with Spotify.
  • Because iTunes is integrated with both AirPlay and bluetooth, it lets you route its output simultaneously to any set of speaker systems in the house. Spotify has a similar feature, but it’s Bluetooth/Chromecast only (no AirPlay) and only available to Premium users (not a big deal, just saying this ability is free with iTunes, paid with Spotify). As a constant user of both Bluetooth and AirPlay speaker systems, I can say unequivocally that Bluetooth is a constant hassle, while AirPlay is seamless — no way would I want to be forced into using Bluetooth all the time.
  • Both services employ teams of human curators who hand-assemble massive collections of custom playlists and self-refreshing stations in every imaginable micro-subgenre, with music ready to play all day no matter your current context or mood. The human-curated offerings on the two platforms are different but similar. I honestly can’t say I prefer one over the other — the “discovery” problem is satisfied by both platforms equally.
  • As an app, Spotify is faster — but that’s because it does much less than iTunes does. They look very different, of course. iTunes favors the classic Apple “clean white” look while Spotify goes for a more geeky “light on dark” color scheme. Again, I could go either way — both are pleasant and non-fatiguing to use over long periods of time.
  • Both services let you make your playlists public, and to share them out onto social media or blogs.
  • Spotify does one thing far better than iTunes/Apple Music — social graph integration. Sometimes I’d love to see what my friends are listening to. iTunes now has the beginnings of a feature like this in place, but it’s weak, and Spotify’s is far easier to use, and more detailed.
  • Spotify doesn’t provide a way to browse my own collection by Genre, nor a way to customize the genre of individual tracks or albums (admittedly genres are problematic because they’re so loosey-goosey and subjective, but I’m used to having this control and sometimes actually use it!

The Show-Stopper

Then I hit the real show-stopper: Spotify has a hard 10,000 track limit — any more than that, and you get a nasty error message accusing you of having an “epic” collection. WTF? How does a lifetime of music that’s only grown to 10,00 tracks over decades qualify as “epic?” Put it this way: My “Favorite Albums” playlist currently represents around 12% of my total collection. At around 11,000 tracks, even that small subset of my collection is too large for Spotify to handle.

All filled up (not a screenshot of my own library).

Spotify’s official line is that owners of “large” collections should split them up into multiple large playlists. For me that would mean having to split everything up into 10 master/base playlists, from which my actual playlists will be derived. What a disorganized hassle!

Sorry, but this isn’t going to work for me. At this point it really doesn’t matter what advantages Spotify might have — if it can’t handle the library of a somewhat serious adult music collector, what’s the point?

So, to me, Spotify feels like a toy compared to iTunes — similar concept, but far less capable. Which again raises the question: Why does it seem like so many people choose Spotify over Apple Music?

I’d venture that Apple Music and Spotify are supporting two different kinds of users. iTunes follows the user who has been managing their file-based music for years (if not decades) in iTunes, who has amassed a sizable library, has put countless hours into managing and massaging its metadata, and who now has the need to access all of that music from the cloud while also having instant access to the 40 million tracks available to streaming services. Spotify assumes a user who has never done any MP3 file-based music management, or who doesn’t care if they leave their collection behind in exchange for a pure cloud experience.

I was open to the experience, but the past two weeks experimenting with Spotify has been pretty disappointing. Game over. But here’s the kicker: Even if you only want streaming access to 40 million streaming tracks in the cloud and do not have a legacy file-based audio collection to support, Apple Music is still the better choice — it’s better in almost every way, and costs exactly the same. No brainer!