Simple Guide to the Competing Music Streaming Services

Variety Compares Streaming Music Services
Lowe: Jake Michaels/The New York Times/Redux; Jay-Z:MediaPunch/REX Shutterstock

Over the past few years, no facet of the music business has been subject to more analysis, controversy and passionate hand-wringing than the streaming music space. Which makes sense, as the format seems poised to do to the mp3 market what the mp3 market did to compact discs. And yet, for the average consumer, all the talk must be a bit mystifying: The major services are far more similar than different, and the core questions over the space’s future — whether ad-supported free streaming has a future; whether the market can support multiple services simultaneously — all involve business-side decisions more than consumer ones. Nonetheless, the services all offer their own distinct identities, benefits and drawbacks.

Apple Music
U.S. Launch: 2015
Subscribers: 11 million
Cost: $9.99
Catalog: 37 million songs
Easily the most significant new player to enter the U.S. digital music space since Spotify, Apple Music was powered by a $3 billion acquisition of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre’s Beats Music. Having already sold more than 25 billion tracks on iTunes, Apple benefits mightily from brand allegiance, and the simple fact that a sizable portion of music buyers have already given the company their credit card number. But ironically, the service’s most attractive innovation is actually a very old-school one: Live, 24-hour radio programming via its Beats 1 station. With Zane Lowe helming its flagship hour, Beats 1 offers shows from the likes of Dr. Dre, Drake, St. Vincent and Josh Homme, helping to inject some personality into what can often be a sterile, static listening experience.
Forecast: The core dilemma facing Apple Music is identical to the one facing nearly every non-Spotify streaming service: Accruing enough paying subscribers. For that, October will be its first moment of truth, when many of the 11 million already on the service will see their three-month free trial period expire. But if the service can keep attracting noteworthy exclusives — Taylor Swift’s monster “1989” is only available there, and Dr. Dre’s “Compton” launched as an exclusive — it could be the name to beat.

U.S. Launch: 2011
Subscribers: 20 million (paid)
Cost: Free; $9.99
Catalog: 30 million
Spotify was the first streaming music service that most Americans ever heard of, and like Kleenex, Xerox and Google, its brand name is nearly synonymous with its function. Though its free tier represents its biggest lure, the Swedish company has converted a very healthy number of free users to paying subscribers, and its wealth of curated playlists — including, most recently, one from President Obama — helps to compensate for its lack of an attractive radio option.
Forecast: Spotify’s early dominance in the space makes it a target, both for new competitors and for artists and labels unhappy with its royalty payments. But assuming it can keep industry grumbling at bay and keep its free option attractive, it has all the momentum to be around for the long haul.

U.S. Launch: 2015
Subscribers: 500,000
Cost: $9.99; $19.99
Catalog: 25 million songs
Launched by Jay Z last spring, Tidal was built on the back of acquired Swedish service Aspiro, and was marketed as a sort of combination luxury product (with high-quality audio files and video content) and United Artists-esque musician-owned company.
Forecast: From a PR perspective, Tidal’s high-profile launch event was a fiasco, assembling a Legion of Doom-style conference table full of superstars (Madonna, Rihanna, Daft Punk, Coldplay) to sling vague revolutionary rhetoric
and sign a strange “declaration,” without bothering to give average consumers much of a reason to sign on to the service. But if the company can streamline its pitch, and if Jay Z can entice more of his famous friends to dedicate significant exclusives — Prince, for example, plans to release a new album on Tidal — it might still stand a fighting chance.

U.S. Launch: 2014
Subscribers: n/a
Cost: $14.99
Catalog: 35 million songs
A major streaming player in Europe, Deezer was conspicuously unavailable in the U.S. until last year, when it soft-launched as a conspicuously niche product. Offering its high-end audio service in a partnership with Sonos, the company opted to focus on the audiophile market to establish an early foothold.
Forecast: Deezer’s decision to start small and targeted in the U.S. stands in contrast to the all-out marketing blitzes of its competitors, and much of its success will likely depend on consumer demand for better-quality sound files, as well as its strategic steps to grow in the Stateside market.

Google Play Music
U.S. Launch: 2011
Subscribers: n/a
Cost: $9.99
Catalog: 30 million songs
Google’s streaming option combines a number of features, including a traditional streaming service, ad-free YouTube musicvideo viewing and a 50,000-song “locker.”
Forecast: Despite operating the de facto largest music streaming site on the planet — YouTube — Google has struggled to make a compelling, comprehensible pitch for its all-inclusive subscription service, and its 2014 launch of YouTube Music Key as an additional element was perhaps inadequately explained to consumers. Google is holding a number of high cards in its hand, it just hasn’t quite figured out how best to play them.

U.S. Launch: 2011
Subscribers: n/a
Cost: Free; $9.99
Catalog: 35 million songs
One of the earliest U.S. streaming services to survive relatively unchanged, Rdio has long attracted fans for its design and user-friendliness, and it continues to offer a Spotify-style ad-supported free tier, though it’s never gotten the headlines of deeper-pocketed competitors.
Forecast: Rdio recently inked a deal with the Cumulus Media network to stream radio content, which should help it stay in the game as an alternative to the more hard-sell approaches of the space’s newcomers.

U.S. Launch: 2001
Subscribers: 3 million
Cost: $9.99
Catalog: 35 million songs
Another longtime player in the streaming space — Rhapsody actually predates anyone else on this list, having launched as a “celestial jukebox” in 2001 — the U.S. company has been a small but important part of the streaming fabric especially since it acquired Napster, without which much of the digital music business would be unrecognizable.
Forecast: Having expanded its consumer base by 50% over the past year, Rhapsody seems to be holding steady alongside some of the bigger boys on the block. In spring, it notched a smart partnership with Twitter, making it the only service with which full-length tracks can be played on the platform.