Culture 2021

Islands in the Stream: Music Streaming Services and the Race to the Top

“Technology advancements have allowed fans to have the highest music quality in their pockets.”

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Islands in the Stream: While the world continues to open up in pretty much every other way, it’s fair to assume that streaming and downloading will be the standard means of listening to recorded music for the foreseeable future. This was true long before the pandemic hit, and it will remain true afterwards.

But where to go for our music? The days of one or two choices are long gone; nowadays, the competition is fierce. Each service offers something a little different, be it simple familiarity, better sound quality, ease of use, or compatibility with our existing devices. 

The main players in the game right now are arguably SpotifyApple MusicAmazon MusicYouTube Music, and TIDAL. Others, such as SoundCloudPandora and IHeart Radio, are still around and working to keep up.

Neal Gorevic, global head of consumer marketing at Spotify, says that his company is the world’s most popular audio streaming subscription service, armed with 70 million tracks and 2.6 million podcast titles. He’s keen to point out that, as well as a vast array of subscriptions to choose from, the free Spotify service ain’t to be sneezed at.

“No matter if you’re a Premium subscriber or a Spotify Free user, we exist to introduce you to audio we know you’ll love through best-in-class personalization,” Gorevic says. “Our signature combination of human curation and algorithmic insight helps us build a personalized music experience that’s unique to you. Plus, Spotify is available on more than 2,000 different devices. From home and car speakers to gaming consoles, Spotify offers countless convenient ways to listen and discover no matter what you’re looking for or where you are.”

Amazon Music, a relative new kid on the block, says that they aim to expand premium music streaming to new customers with innovative products, like voice features with Alexa, high-quality sound with Amazon Music HD, Twitch live streams and artist merchandise in-app, and podcasts.

“We’re always working to introduce innovative new features that create a richer, more immersive experience that connects our customers with the artists and creators they love,” says an Amazon spokesperson. “We wanted music fans to be able to hear music the way artists recorded it, that’s why back in September 2019 we were the first major streaming service to introduce a high-quality streaming tier with Amazon Music HD. And in May of this year, we announced that going forward, our high-quality streaming tier, Amazon Music HD, is available to all Amazon Music Unlimited customers at no extra cost, unlocking access to the highest-quality streaming audio for even more music fans.”

Amazon purchased Twitch in 2014, and in September 2020 they partnered to add Twitch’s live streaming functionality into the Amazon Music app. That, in combination with their new DJ mode, proves that Amazon are serious players in this game. Meanwhile, YouTube has long been a valuable resource for listening to beloved songs and discovering new artists. The dedicated YouTube Music makes the whole process a little more convenient.

“YouTube Music is the only music streaming service with official singles, albums, playlists, remixes, music videos, live performances, covers, and hard-to-find music you can’t get anywhere else,” said a YouTube spokesperson. “With YouTube Music, you can listen to the latest hits, find songs that you love, stay connected to the music world, and discover tons of new music to enjoy on your devices. YouTube Music Premium ($9.99/month) allows fans to listen ad-free, in the background and on-the-go with downloads.”

Apple Music and TIDAL are also considered big guns in the streaming game, though recent years have been tougher on Soundcloud. Many have moved on, but there’s a determination at SoundCloud and they shouldn’t be counted out quite yet.

“What differentiates SoundCloud amongst other music streaming services is that music streaming represents only one part of our business,” says a SoundCloud spokesperson. “Only SoundCloud runs two businesses, a music streaming service with one of the world’s largest and most diverse catalogues and an artist services business, empowering artists to build and grow their careers by providing them with the most progressive tools and services like monetization, distribution and marketing.”

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Naturally, the various employees at the various streaming services are keen to point out the positive traits that they have to offer. And it’s difficult to say that one is “better” than another because it’s all very subjective depending on what the listener wants out of a service, what device they listen on, etc. Apple devices, for example, are now very much geared towards Apple Music which integrates iTunes with the streaming and downloading app. The recent COVID lockdown essentially forced all of the companies to consider what users might want and need.

“We know over the past year both creators and our users have been looking for new ways to feel connected, and we’ve seen audio bring people together like never before,” says Gorevic of Spotify. That company launched a COVID relief fund to aid members of the music community, as well as virtual concert listings, and more.

“Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we saw artists turn to live streaming as their preeminent outlet to connect with fans while they were unable to tour,” says an Amazon spokesperson. “Twitch has long been at the forefront of connecting creators and fans through live streaming experiences, and Amazon Music recognized prior to the pandemic that this technology represented a new frontier for artists looking to combine live with on-demand streaming experiences. Our relationship with Twitch made us uniquely able to go even further, and make their live streaming capabilities available to even more fans by adding the feature to our mobile app.”

YouTube hosted virtual shows and launched a new activity bar feature. Pandora, too, hosted shows, playlists and personal stories. Pandora was also the first to have integrations with leading smart home products from Apple’s HomePod to Amazon’s Echo devices. In addition, Pandora was recently purchased by SiriusXM, allowing for cross-platform features. SoundCloud livestreamed through its own channel on Twitch, and introduced a direct support feature and a $10 million artist accelerator fund.

Meanwhile, Norwegian subscription-based streaming service TIDAL was purchased by Square and founder Jack Dorsey.

“The acquisition by Square only strengthened TIDAL’s commitment to supporting artists and strengthening the artist to fan connection,” says COO Lior Tibon.

Some users might feel frustrated when Spotify adds songs to a user-selected playlist, but Gorevic says that they are committed to helping users discover new music.

“There isn’t just one Spotify experience, but rather 356 million+ different Spotify experiences unique to each user,” he says. “Our algorithmic recommendations are personalized to each listener’s unique taste, taking into account a variety of factors: what you’re listening to and when, which songs you’re adding to your playlists, and the listening habits of people who have similar tastes.”

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So nobody is resting on their laurels – not the industry leaders and certainly not those currently playing catch-up. One area being explored as a potential means of getting ahead is sound quality, with Apple Music now offering Dolby Atmos and hi-def as a free upgrade.

“Spatial Audio with support for Dolby Atmos gives artists the opportunity to create immersive audio experiences for their fans with true multidimensional sound and clarity that comes from all around and from above the listener,” reads an Apple statement. “Beginning today, subscribers can enjoy thousands of songs in Spatial Audio from some of the world’s biggest artists and music across all genres. Albums that are available in Spatial Audio will have a badge on the detail page to make them easily discernible and Apple Music is also offering a special set of editorially curated Spatial Audio playlists to help listeners find the music they love and enable further discovery.”

“Earlier this year at Spotify’s Stream On virtual event, we announced our plans to unveil Spotify HiFi, our new high-quality music experience,” adds Gorevic. “High-quality music streaming is consistently one the most requested new features by our users and at Spotify, we will continue to go all-in on the limitless power of audio and provide the best audio experience for our users.”

Amazon says that they’re pushing the evolution of the industry, “by offering our customers the ability to hear 3D Audio, which includes both Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 RA formats. Available to Amazon Music HD customers with an Echo Studio, 3D Audio allows artists and creators to deliver immersive listening experiences by placing music objects – such as vocals and instrumentals – in a three-dimensional space, creating a listening experience unlike any other.”

TIDAL’s Lior Tibon says that his company is focused on the experience of music.

“Since 2016 TIDAL has been nurturing and building a community of audiophiles, and more importantly, has prioritized the mission to bring the most advanced and quality experience to listeners through both high-fidelity and immersive audio,” he says. “As a pioneer in audio technology and experiences, TIDAL offers the largest variety of audio formats – including MQA, as well as Dolby Atmos and Sony’s 360 Reality Audio.”

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Things are starting to open up, and it’s probable that there won’t be such a great focus on virtual events moving forward.

“[Spotify is] excited to get back to live events as parts of the world begin to open up,” says Gorevic. “Our Spotify for Artists app provides valuable data to help creators understand listening habits, see where they’ve built their fanbase, and plan tours based on the momentum and excitement that’s been building up around their music over the past year.”

“It’s still day one for us at Amazon Music, and we’re very excited about the future,” adds an Amazon spokesperson. “It’s the most exciting time there has ever been in the music industry and we will continue to innovate, creating new features and content that will help music fans and artists connect in ways we only dreamed about a few years ago.”

YouTube says that they’re going to continue meeting listeners where they are:

“We aim to provide fans with the most seamless, all-in-one music experience and YouTube Premium provides just that – a seamless, ad-free experience that lets you effortlessly move between YouTube and YouTube Music to explore the world’s largest catalog of songs, music videos, live shows, culture, and everything behind the beats.”

Similarly, SoundCloud says that they’re looking forward to getting back out and communicating directly with their community.

“We launched the SoundCloud Forum a few years ago, which is an experiential platform that brings everything you love about SoundCloud directly to the core communities pushing music culture forward. This past year we took the forum online, though the year prior we held events in Toronto, Miami, Atlanta and Amsterdam.”

“We believe the future is hybrid and connecting audiences digitally and IRL will be the future of how entertainment helps to bring communities together who share the same love of music around the world,” adds TIDAL’s Tibon. “We’re looking forward to TIDAL driving how our members experience concerts and festivals through on-site experience and virtually.”

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So what does the future hold? Who will retain a place at the top table and who will fall away? Will any of the current strugglers force a glorious comeback? It remains to be seen.

“This is an interesting point in time when music services are evolving to become more than just a music store,” says the Amazon spokesperson. “You can see this in the moves Amazon Music made over the last year; adding live streaming brings a new dimension to a music service, as does adding podcasts and in-app merch. Amazon Music is enriching the user experience, and adding a new listening experience to one customers already enjoy.”

“We‘ve always been focused on connecting creators and fans – it’s rooted in our mission as a company,” adds Spotify’s Gorevic. “Whether we’re providing fans with exclusive content from their favorite artist or incorporating features that allow fans to directly support podcasters’ careers, we’ll continue creating new ways to deepen that creator and fan relationship through our platform. This is a major space to watch in the coming years.”

TIDAL’s Tibon says that there has been a seismic shift in the last few years in how music is consumed and valued.

“Technology advancements have allowed fans to have the highest music quality in their pockets,” he says. “We’re hoping to see continued advancements for the listening experience, and more importantly we hope to see artists properly compensated for their art across the board. Both of these elements are incredibly important to TIDAL’s mission and we’ll continue to push this forward across the industry.”

The competition will be fascinating.    ❖

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