The way we consume music has changed radically in the last decade. To be sure, the iTunes Store, bolstered by hundreds of millions of iPods and iOS devices, has turned the market for purchased music on its head. But, quietly, outside the Apple spotlight, online music streaming services have matured, to the point where one could rely entirely on them for one’s listening, listening for free (with ads) or paying a monthly subscription fee instead of purchasing individual tracks and albums.
The three main players in this space — Pandora, Spotify and Last.fm — offer broadly comparable services, with a few details to separate them. So I waited until the family were out, plugged my best powered speakers into my laptop, fired up the three services, and — oh, the things I do for TidBITS — I spent the afternoon listening to my favourite music.
Although I didn’t look at them, there are other services — most notably Rdio and Mog — that offer features and pricing nearly identical to Spotify’s, so if you decide that you like the type of service Spotify offers, but have an issue with something related to Spotify specifically, it might be worth checking them out.
What They Do -- At their simplest, all three services stream songs based on selections you make. On closer inspection, though, differences emerge. Of the three, only Spotify allows you to choose specific albums and songs to listen to. For example, search for “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones, double-click “Rocks Off,” and when that song finishes, Spotify simply moves on to play “Rip This Joint,” as Keith Richards intended.
Spotify doesn’t make you do all the work, though, offering an “artist radio” option for playing songs chosen by the service based on a selected band.
Last.fm and Pandora focus on this radio approach, and are based around the idea of “stations.” My search on Pandora for the Stones starts “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” playing; this song, apparently, is typical of the band’s style, which, according to Pandora, “features electric rock instrumentation, a subtle use of vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, extensive vamping, and major key tonality.” I’m a sucker for extensive vamping, and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is archetypal mid-period Stones, but I had no choice of which Rolling Stones song Pandora played (a subsequent search played “Paint It, Black” instead). And if I want to hear one of my personal favourites — “Stray Cat Blues,” say, or “Torn and Frayed,” then I’ll have to hope it shows up as Pandora offers me a series of songs similar to its idea of what the Stones sound like, a sensibility generated by the Music Genome Project.
Last.fm fits somewhat between Spotify and Pandora, in that you can play thirty-second samples of some (but by no means all) songs to help you decide how to seed your station, but it otherwise reverts to the station model.
Choice -- Based on raw numbers, Spotify has the largest catalog of the three, clocking in at 15.5 million tracks as of a year ago. The only number I can find for Last.fm is 7 million tracks in 2009, though the site’s Wikipedia page claims 12 million. Pandora brings up the rear here, with between 800,000 and 1 million tracks, depending on the source, although the company claims that 95 percent of Pandora’s songs are played every month, implying that size isn’t all that matters.
Of course, all three offer the obvious selections — if you want to listen (for whatever reason; we’re not here to judge…) to One Direction or Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, you’ll find their music, unsurprisingly, on all three services. So I decided to dig a little deeper, and was pleasantly surprised.
Like most music lovers, I have a few relatively obscure favourites, and so I searched, first, for the Rainmakers, a country-rock band from Missouri who were big in the 1990s in Norway (really!). All three services knew about the Rainmakers; I was even pleasantly surprised to learn, from Spotify, that they have recently released a live album, which I promptly bought from iTunes.
Next came the Tragically Hip, a classic Canadian rock band who have resolutely refused to make it big south of the border. Spotify offered me their 2009 album “We Are The Same,” but none of their earlier (and vastly superior) albums. This turns out to be a licensing issue; the earlier albums are available to at least U.S. listeners. Both Pandora and Last.fm were familiar with the Hip, but, of course, could only offer suggestions based on the band, rather than playing specific songs.
I searched for Gin Wigmore, one of New Zealand’s finest; all three services knew about Gin. Ulfuls, my favourite Japanese band, finally flummoxed Pandora, but Spotify (at least in New Zealand) and Last.fm were both equal to the challenge.
A couple of prominent acts were notably, but not surprisingly, absent. Spotify and Last.fm, the two services that offer specific songs (or, in Last.fm’s case, fragments), had few or no Beatles tracks available to listen to. (The Beatles appeared in the iTunes Store only in 2010, seven years after the iTunes Store launched; see “The Beatles Come to iTunes (Finally!),” 16 November 2010). Last.fm’s selection was limited, while Spotify’s appeared to be restricted to obscure non-EMI tracks and a bunch of covered tracks. Pandora, at least, played “Yesterday” as the band’s representative track when I set up a Beatles station. Led Zeppelin, another famous group that came to the iTunes Store only in 2007, were similarly unrepresented on the streaming services.
Recommendations (Music, not the Services) -- The key feature of all three services is their capability to recommend music based on your selections. Whether it’s called a “station” or “artist radio,” the idea is simple — if you liked that, you might like this. Using, for reasons that should be quite obvious, the Rolling Stones as a sample, I tested the three services. Pandora offered me Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin; weirdly, Spotify thinks I should be listening to Nirvana, U2, and Elvis Presley; and Last.fm restored sanity by suggesting the Yardbirds.
Pandora’s recommendations are based on the Music Genome Project’s findings, which purport to identify up to 400 different characteristics in a song, ranging from tonality to instrumentation to “feel.” Last.fm makes its suggestions around something called scrobbling. Despite sounding like something that could get consenting adults arrested before the war in England, scrobbling is nothing more than a music-playing service or system telling Last.fm what songs you’re listening to so that it can build up a coherent pattern. The goal is to determine that people who listen to, say, Selena Gomez might realistically be expected also to listen to Justin Bieber, while people like me, who would rather drive dirty nails through our eardrums than listen to either of those, are more likely, after giving “Baba O’Riley” a quick spin, to next want to listen to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” more than Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”
While Pandora’s selections might make logical sense, its reliance on similar features does, I suspect, take out any real human element from the recommending process; just because two artists often use minor-key tonality, does that mean I’d like both of them? Can Pandora’s recommendations really take into account the vast number of impossible-to-identify “I just really like that song!” indefinables that are part of the joy of discovering new music? In reality, however, the more mainstream your initial selection, the more likely you are to have heard, or at least heard of, the suggestions you are offered. Let’s face it, a Rolling Stones fan will likely already be familiar with Led Zeppelin.
Much more helpful were the Norwegian bands that fans of the Rainmakers are introduced to via Spotify’s artist radio. Pandora’s Rainmakers station offered the same four or five acts repeatedly, but Spotify tossed in some quite surprising options (how else would I have discovered Beckstrøm’s wonderful “Søster Morfin”?). Interesting, Spotify can also scrobble to Last.fm, enabling Last.fm to expand its network of related artists.
If you don’t like a song offered up by Pandora or Last.fm, you can skip to the next track, but only a fixed number of times per hour. That number is six for Last.fm and seems to be around ten for Pandora; although the people at Pandora don’t say much about it, a paid account increases that number. Spotify has no such restriction.
User Experience -- Again, Spotify stands apart from its rivals. Pandora and Last.fm are both Web-based experiences, at least on the desktop, while the Spotify experience is centred on a Mac application. Having its own standalone application gives Spotify the edge in terms of flexibility and functionality, and, for the most part, the Spotify app is well-constructed, with a reasonably clean and functional interface.
It integrates with your iTunes library so you can switch back and forth between local and streamed music fluidly, provides some social functions should you be intent on telling the world what you’re listening to, and sports a plug-in system of sorts. These plug-ins — which Spotify rather inconveniently calls “apps” — are in effect HTML5 Web apps and provide additional features such as Last.fm scrobbling, TuneWiki lyrics lookup, MoodAgent playlists (like Genius playlists), and a host of music discovery services, such as updates to the New Zealand Top 10 (I know — how did you ever live without it?).
Glaringly absent from Spotify’s desktop app is AirPlay. The omission of AirPlay compatibility is reasonable for Pandora and Last.fm, living as they do in a Web browser; it is a little more puzzling in the case of Spotify. For those running OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, it is of course possible to direct all system audio to an AirPort Express base station, for instance, by choosing AirPlay in the Sound preference pane. Those using older versions of Mac OS X or who want additional control, can instead use Rogue Amoeba’s rather excellent Airfoil software to fill the gap.
Last.fm and Pandora are Web-based applications, with no desktop clients (a paid Pandora subscription includes a desktop app, but it is, sadly, an Adobe Air app, which might put off many users). Both are excellent candidates for site-specific browsers built in a utility like Fluid.
Independent developers offer a handful of lightweight front-end apps for controlling Pandora and Last.fm (Musicality works with both, in fact), but these are essentially single-purpose HTTP clients which can interact solely with their respective sites.
Pandora’s site is relatively clean and uncluttered, with a search bar, playback controls, a list of stations and a “now playing” window containing information about the band, the song and possible alternatives.
Last.fm’s site, on the other hand, is rather fussy and busy, with a photo of the artist being played, a mini-bio and, at the bottom of the screen, adverts, and a list of comments by other listeners. Which brings us nicely to…
Social Element -- All three services would like to become your social network of choice for music. But then, Apple wanted that too, and — let’s be brutally honest here — how many of us actually use Ping? As a result, Spotify and Pandora let Facebook do the hard work of running a social network for them, and then invite users to post details of the songs they’re listening to on Facebook. Spotify, indeed, takes Facebook integration annoyingly far — in order to register with Spotify, a Facebook account appears now to be not just an option but in fact required.
Last.fm has clearly not heard about Ping, and has tried to incorporate its own social network elements into its Web site, but when I tried searching for my music-loving friends, of whom there are plenty, I found none. This is not surprising — Apple tried and failed with Ping, and it is unlikely that anyone apart from Twitter or Google could eat into Facebook’s domination of the field.
Going Mobile -- Pandora and Last.fm may lack desktop applications, but both offer iPhone apps, as does Spotify. I was only able to try out the Pandora app for free; access to Spotify and Last.fm on the iPhone is limited to paid subscribers (though Spotify’s radio stations are available on Spotify’s app to those in the U.S. who have free Spotify accounts). To use all of Spotify’s features on the iPhone (there is also an Android version), you must subscribe to the $9.99 per month Premium level; Last.fm requires a $3 per month account even for those who get Last.fm free in the U.S., UK, and Germany (more on pricing shortly).
So I was left with Pandora, and that’s fine — their mobile app is excellent. Once I log into my Pandora account on my phone, I can access the stations on my phone that I set up on my computer. As I listen, a tap in the top right corner of the screen reveals an information page containing lyrics, an artist bio, and extensive — very, very extensive — information about the song from the Music Genome Project, which is how I came to discover that the Stone Roses’ “Ten Storey Love Song” features, apparently, “subtle use of vocal harmony;” it must be very subtle. Best of all, Pandora on my iPhone supports AirPlay.
To be fair, the Spotify and Last.fm apps seem entirely similar, both offering a variety of artist-related information and supporting AirPlay. If you’re planning on paying for a service, you’ll appreciate the associated app, but the apps themselves don’t help much in the way of differentiation.
Business Models -- In music, as in life, free lunches are yet to be found. Spotify, Pandora, and Last.fm all offer free trials, but if you like their services, you’ll be paying in one form or another.
Last.fm’s fees depend on where you live; it’s free with advertising in the U.S., UK, and Germany. Those of us in the rest of the world get 50 songs for free each month, after which it costs $3 (or €3, or £3, depending on your desired currency) per month.
Pandora is notionally free, but advertising pays for your music. The Pandora One ad-free experience costs either $36 for a year or $3.99 a month. As noted previously, you also get a desktop app for Pandora, along with higher quality audio.
Spotify has a three-tiered system, again with some international variations. “Free,” as the name suggests, costs nothing but your willingness to be interrupted by adverts, which can be surprisingly jarring — to go from “Tumbling Dice” straight into “The new lamb burger from McDonald’s…” is not a happy music experience. Worse, Spotify doesn’t seem to have all that many advertisers, so you end up listening to the same ads repeatedly.
In the U.S., Spotify offers two fee-based plans: the $4.99 per month “Unlimited” level removes the ads and the $9.99 per month “Premium” level gives you access to all of Spotify’s features in mobile apps and offers offline mode for playlists (I presume they cache the songs you add to playlists). The capability to play your radio stations in Spotify’s mobile apps is free for all levels in the U.S.; in other countries, radio access appears only at the Premium level. The costs of the Unlimited and Premium plans vary slightly by country.
Recommendations (Services, not the Music) -- Last.fm excluded itself quite early on — the unpolished Web interface, the 30-second samples, and a general sense of “meh” left me feeling unimpressed by the service. The choice, then, comes down to Pandora and Spotify.
That decision comes down to how you want to interact with music online. Spotify is, essentially, a subscription alternative to ownership of music — pay your monthlies and listen to whatever you like. For directed exploration, where you want to listen to an entire album or even everything from an artist, Spotify is unparalleled. It is also the most expensive of the services, though even its Premium level is akin to buying only a single album per month. Of course, with Spotify, you don’t own the music you listen to, and at the point where you stop paying your Spotify bill, all that music disappears.
In contrast, Pandora sticks closely to the personalised radio station model, making it ideal for those who don’t want to put too much manual effort into choosing what to listen to, but who enjoy hearing music in particular veins. Plus, Pandora costs less than even the cheapest Spotify plan.
Personally, I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Spotify offers an intriguing music subscription possibility, but, here in New Zealand, where every bit is metered, I would prefer to access most of my music locally, in my iTunes library or on my iOS device of choice, rather than via Spotify’s cloud. Where both Pandora and Spotify shine is as radio stations that know, and are willing to learn more about, what kind of music I like. As long as I’m paying, Pandora gets the nod; Spotify’s American price tag (Stephen Sondheim was right…) would make that service my preference were I not fortunate enough to live in New Zealand.
In the end, it’s only rock and roll, but I find I get my rocks off with Pandora’s iPhone app. Its AirPlay capability makes me happy, so my preference lies not with Spotify, which, in New Zealand at least, simply doesn’t quite give me satisfaction, and I’m not swayed by Last.fm.