Remember iTunes? The music library service that revolutionized the way that we listen to music in the 21st century? As the bridge between the hard copy format of CD’s to digital listening, iTunes was instrumental in advancing the way that we access music and the way that we play it. In the years since the service has been rendered effectively extinct by Apple and services like Apple Music and Spotify have taken over. But what has also changed with the advent of these streaming services is the way that we access our libraries with two very schools of thought starting form: the traditional approach of Apple versus the curated and suggestion based system being championed by Google and Spotify.
The Traditional Library
Apple as a company has a very “if it isn’t broke then don’t fix it” mentality with a lot of their software and hardware design. Consider when they introduced AirPods. From a design perspective, they looked like the regular wired EarPods with the wire cut off. This is because people were satisfied with the fit and finish of the EarPods but wanted a wireless option. Apple did not overthink it and delivered on this.
In the iTunes era, the way that a music library was organized was to be categorized by songs, artists, albums, and a place where created playlists lived. This was simple and effective and echoed the way that people listened to music on the iPod. So when Apple transitioned to a streaming service with Apple Music in 2015, the model was the same as it always had been. The setup was, in essence, the same as the iTunes era but the songs were streamed from the cloud as opposed to being played locally by default.
This is another example of Apple’s model of keeping the familiarity for their users. Using Apple Music these days is much like the experience of using an iPod in the early 2000s. This is by design, as customers mostly enjoyed the iPod experience in the sense of library management and there is no real need to change it. This is the heart of the Apple Music experience, a more modern version of what we already knew.
Over time, Apple has added features for playlist curation such as its very popular Beats Radio station. This is a case of modernization as a supplement as opposed to a focus. Apple Music has always been a modern version of the traditional iTunes library in the pocket. Apple has never really been interested in reinventing the proverbial streaming music wheel. This is the strength of Apple, the consistency of an experience that keeps people coming back for more innovation after iteration.
Let Me Curate That For You
If there is one thing that is everywhere in today’s tech landscape it is artificial intelligence. AI is in everything these days, and music services are no exception. The two services that leverage AI the most are Spotify and Google’s YouTube Music. Both of these services deliver much of the same music content as Apple Music, but the delivery methods vary a bit.
Instead of a “find it and save it” method, Spotify and YouTube Music pride themselves on being able to take a potential mood or situation and deliver the perfect music for that occasion. Users of these services will often swear by these recommendation engines. There is a feeling of automation to using something like Spotify’s Daily Mix or Discover Weekly playlists.
In a way, when trained with enough data these curated playlists almost feel like some sort of tech wizardry. With music being such an emotional connection to art for many people, this type of AI interaction can lead people to say how they love Spotify for these sorts of recommendations.
You may have noticed that I have mostly referenced Spotify so far. That is because YouTube Music is still in its infancy as the heir apparent to Google Play Music. YouTube Music goes into the Spotify model as opposed to the Apple Music essence of Google Play Music. This transition takes time, but Google has improved the overall experience to make the service a worthy Spotify competitor.
The lean into artificial intelligence by these apps is an attempt to redefine the music library. Pandora started this process years ago by introducing its radio only model years ago. By avoiding the process of saving songs, the idea was planted that the music for every situation can be achieved through smart suggestions. What has happened as a result is a bit of a divide in the way that we access and listen to our favorite music.
The Great Dilemma
The trouble with comparing the streaming music services at our disposal is that with every update they seem to veer further and further apart from one another. It reminds me a bit of what we have seen with Netflix and Hulu in recent years. While we look at both companies as video streaming service regulars there is an unwritten categorization of the two services that Hulu is mainly for TV shows while Netflix is a place for movies and the companies own original content.
In the music realm, Apple Music is the solution for the person looking to save music by going through albums. Spotify and YouTube Music is the solution for the person looking for music discovery as the primary focus. There is a social aspect to these services that are central to their appeal. The sharing of playlists is a focus of their popularity, almost like a modern digital “check out my mixtape” angle. In a certain respect, it boils down to an experience of a solo listening versus social bonding and discovery.
To decide on a streaming service now means to define the way that you listen to music. At this point, all of the services work well on most platforms but the way that they tackle how we listen to music is constantly evolving.
This is the conversation that needs to be had when comparing these services, it is no longer a one size fits all comparison. There is a level of nuance that needs to be applied to the discussion where we take into account the priorities of the consumer. So what is the right school of thought?
To answer that question is disingenuous to the evolving tastes of us as consumers. The benefit is that there is now an option of directions to take when considering a music service. If you want the perfect playlist for the perfect occasion, then YouTube Music or Spotify is the right choice. If you want a service that will organize all your favorites and prioritize that setup, then Apple Music or Deezer is for you. If audio quality is your most important feature, then Tidal is the service to select.
We are in an era of choice where the needs of different types of customers are being taken into account during the development process. So when you are deciding what music service to choose, it is important to ask yourself what kind of music listener are you. It is at that point that the realization comes that there is no superior music service, but rather the superior music service for our very specific needs. Happy streaming everyone.