There seems to be a lot of angst around subscribing to a music service. Some of the things I hear are: “I want to own the music, not just rent it,” “My musical tastes are off the beaten path; subscription services just have the most popular music, “ or “Who needs to subscribe, I can always listen to Pandora for free (with some ads)?” FDRMX‘s own slogan is FDRMX: Explore. Discover. Music. While there are challenges with any subscription service, I know of no better way to do just that, explore and discover music, than with a subscription service. First, I’ll lay out the benefits I’ve seen in subscribing, then I’ll address the worries about subscription services in general and, finally, I’ll review my experience with a few of the major subscription players.
Boldly Going Where the Music Takes You: One of the truly fabulous features of subscribing to a music service is checking new music and even new types of music without the cha-ching of dollars flying out of your wallet (virtual or otherwise). Now I know I’m a bit old school in listening to albums rather than just a song here and there, but an album gives the measure of an artist. It helps you know whether they’re one you would want to follow, go to their concert and from whom you want to hear new music. A single song just can’t do that. So that’s why I like a service like XBox Music or Beats Music. Both services allow you dive in a the album or multiple album level, as well as to explore related artists. It’s also simple to listen to them off-line. That kind of focused exploration is possible but a bit more challenging on Spotify and really unavailable on Pandora.
I happen to listen to most of my music on my Nokia Lumia 920, which is a Windows Phone. One feature that made a quick dive into music dead simple is to use Bing search, like Shazam, to “listen” to music you hear, search it and, once found (and it does it quite quickly and well), then simply click a button to go to the XBox music store and add it to you collection, download it or the whole album. Beats Music is working on a similar feature with Shazam. All of this without having to separately pay for it. Often you hear a great song precisely at that time when you can’t pause to really listen to it. This is a nice way to grab it for a later listen. So, not only do I explore artists related to those I know, this allows me to explore artists I hear around me.
Of course, music randomly playing around me isn’t my primary mode of exploration; rather, I’ll explore artists related to those I know, those friends recommend, an artist I’ve read about on FDRMX, Facebook and Twitter links, and even Noisetrade (all about making indie artists known) as a springboard for a further look at an artist’s music. Pretty much wherever my interest in music is piqued, I have a way to explorer, maybe grabbing something of the artists for a later look if I don’t have time when I first hear the artist.
So while it’s nice to just let a service suggest automatically artists whose songs you automatically listen to ala Pandora, it’s also nice to do a more directed, deep-dive exploration. This kind of deep dive would be economically unfeasible for me if I had to buy each song or album.
Owning the music: Why do we own music? So we know we can get to it anywhere at any time and any way I want it. I don’t have to wait for it, I don’t worry about being connected to the internet, I can listen to high-quality music and I don’t have to be on a particular device or platform to listen to it. Now, I’ll state right up front that there times owning it is the best way to get what you really want. There are some new albums that aren’t on the subscription service right away, or some songs on the album that are available immediately. No music service is perfect. However, I have fairly eclectic and esoteric tastes in music and it’s rare that I can’t find what I want. Often if I can’t find it on the service, I can’t find it at Amazon either. Nothing precludes you from subscribing and buy some albums. The trick is that, for you and your tastes, the need to buy should be relatively rare. Almost all of the major services allow for downloading music, both Xbox Music and Beats Music allow for unlimited downloads. Xbox Music & Beats Music both support iOS (iPhone), Android and Windows Phone as well as streaming on a web browser. So wherever you are, on which ever device, connected or not, your music is with you.
The major issue about owning the music is the feeling of knowing it’s mine. Well, true enough, if you quit the subscription service, you no longer have access to the music used through it. And so? At that point you would have to buy it if you want it (which you would have done upfront without a subscription service) or go to another service. “But that $10 bucks a month is gone and I have nothing to show for it!” Yup, other than countless hours of listening to music. Realistically, how many songs or albums from 5 years ago do you still listen to on a regular basis? Guess what, you can keep an album in your library for 5 years and more. As long as you maintain your subscription (and the music is available), you will be able to listen to it. In the last few years since I’ve starting using a subscriptions service, I’ve had two albums in my library that are no longer available (or temporarily removed for licensing reasons). So, pretty much, if you want to keep the music over years, you’re good.
The breadth of the music: As I indicated above, I’m able to get at the vast majority of the music I desire through my service. Now that may sound trivial but consider that I listen to a lot of classical music, indie music especially focusing on recent releases of indie artists and new music in jazz, folk, alt. rock and R & B. (Like I said, eclectic tastes) So when I say I can get to most of the music I desire, that’s non-trivial. This is not focused on top-40 pop. This is not just 10-year old back list in genre’s I like. This is new releases across a wide variety of genres. If it’s hot, sometimes I have to wait a week or two, but that’s rare. For example, all of these recent releases were available on their release day in the last couple weeks: Anne Akiko Meyers: The American Masters, Joshua Bell: Bach, The Script: No Sound with Silence, Colbie Caillat: Gypsy Heart, Sam Smith: In the Lonely Hour, Ella Henderson’s “Ghost” (single only), and Jesse Ware’s “Say You Love Me” (single only). You get the idea; it’s a fairly broad-based spectrum of music. Typically the deluxe version of the album is available, if there is one. While there are some iTunes exclusives, that’s relatively rare and you can always get those by buying them which is what you would have to do without a subscription service. The sheer freedom to try so many different artists and different types of music is amazing. Only you can know whether the subscription model works for you, I simply know that I’ve definitely broadened my tastes and my knowledge of artists since subscribing.
The Services: I’ll briefly highlight the services I’ve personally used which are: Pandora, Spotify, XBox Music and Beats Music. There are several detailed, technical reviews of the services. For example one on Cult of Mac provides some nice comparisons. For a very technical real-world test, see Sound Engineer (and more) Matt Urselli’s post The Truth About Music Streaming Services. I love Pandora and the way artists can pop-up whom you’ve never heard before and now you have someone totally new you like. However, the exploration can’t be directed on Pandora and there are other limitations. Spotify, XBox Music and Beats Music all work well. While Beats Music has the highest quality of the three (under some circumstances), they all sound good. Because I use a Windows Phone (so the service has to support that platform) and have a number of Windows 8.1 machines, including a Surface, XBox Music is the most convenient and straight-forward interface. However, I have teenagers using their own smartphones (iOS & Android) so the fact Beats Music allows up to 5 accounts/devices simultaneously use the service for $15 on the family plan is key. Right now, Beats Music is the only one to offer a Family plan, which, for me, the deciding factor. Obviously, others will have different criteria. Buying one album in a month would blow up all of that cost. Each one of us listen to much more than a single album in a month.
If you love checking out new artists or simply trying an artist new to you, consider a subscription service. Just be careful, once you go down that rabbit hole, you’ll be sucked into a whole new musical world.