Please welcome Dean Reilly from broadband, TV & Phone comparison site cable.co.uk who’s here to share with us his thoughts about popular music streaming service Spotify and how the Internet has changed how we consume music.
Dean also takes some time out to give us his verdict on five popular Spotify alternatives. Keep reading to find out if any of them are worth your time …
“To say that the internet and the music industry haven’t always seen eye to eye is the digital equivalent of saying the Titanic maiden voyage could have gone better. As soon as it was viable to turn music into small, sharable digital files, the wider music industry started to react with a mix of confusion, suspicion and a not very healthy dose of fear.
It’s understandable, though. In the early 90s, the peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster took advantage of increasing download speeds and smaller audio file sizes to make it easy for music lovers to share their favourite tracks with one another. The catch was whilst the original uploader of the file might have purchased an album or single, no one that downloaded the file from them did. That was never going to end well.
Fast forward past a difficult near eight year court case which saw the likes of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, Dr Dre and Madonna speak out against Napster, an eventual $130 million settlement and the launch of iPods and the iTunes store, and digital music has become legitimised along the way.
It’s no accident that the development of MP3 and digital streaming technology has grown alongside the increase of internet connection speeds, the move from dial-up to superfast fibre broadband, and speedier processors in all sorts of devices to make these elements work together seamlessly.
Although only seven years old, one of the biggest contributors to this digital turnaround is streaming music service Spotify. With around 20 million regular users, of whom approximately 5 million pay for the advert-free Spotify premium service, it’s come a long way in a short while. Spotify uses a clever three-way system to get music to you seamlessly. First, it’ll stream content to you direct from their servers. Next, it will connect you to other subscribers who have the content you want to listen to stored locally on their own computers (although you’ll never know when you’re artistically linked to other Spotify users). This brings us nicely onto the third way Spotify works – establishing a cache of digital music on your laptop, home computer or mobile device so frequently listened to tracks will actually be accessed locally rather than online. Clever, eh?
Allowing users to listen to a world of music either online or in offline mode, either through a subscription service or advert supported free option, Spotify has proven to be a real frontrunner when it comes to accessing digital music online. From a technology point of view, it’s a system that (with some minor tweaks here and there) provides the blueprint for every other digital streaming music service online.
Yet the catch with building up such a wide user base and developing so well, so quickly is that internet-using music lovers could end up looking for something a bit fresher to serve their listening needs. We’re a fickle bunch, after all. So with that in mind, what are some of the pretenders to the Spotify throne? Here’s our top five alternatives, which will inevitably make their way to your favourites toolbar when you’re online with Plusnet. To help compare, we’ll try and find the following ten songs from a range of… let’s call them “eclectic” artists, genres and eras. And no, you’ll never, ever find these performers listed together again
Aled Jones: Ave Maria
Ben Folds: Rockin’ The Suburbs
Bootsy Collins: Tha Funk Capitol of the World
Charlie Parker: Embraceable You
Field Harmonics: Happenstance
Garth Brooks: Friends in Low Places
Ludovico Einaudi: Rose
Radiohead: No Surprises
The Sugarhill Gang: Apache
Tracks found? 7 out of 10
Missing tracks by: Bootsy Collins, Gallows and Garth Brooks
Subscription plan(s): Free
Currently in beta testing, blinkbox music (lowercase branding is the way to go with digital music, apparently) is a subscription-free music streaming service from the makers of the TV and movie rental service blinkbox. blinkbox music offer free, advertising supported content for you to stream online. If the blinkbox music service follows in the footsteps of its TV and video-streaming big brother, expect moves towards premium, ad-free and subscription supported services before too long.
There are some advantages and disadvantages of getting on-board with a service while it’s in the beta stages. Firstly, it gives you access to something that not everyone will have used, or even heard of – great for bragging rights if it turns into the next online music version of Facebook. Many developers also give beta testers the chance to give feedback, so you can help steer something new in exciting directions. The downside is that, since it is in the testing stages, you could encounter glitches, problems and issues that the developers are ironing out as they go. You’re essentially providing a free testing service before it gets a proper launch – but many beta testers are fine with that.
Sadly, no matter how speedy your Plusnet connection is, it won’t help blinkbox find any more than 7 out of 10 tracks. That’s the lowest success rate of the players we’ve looked at. Still, it is in the testing stages, so we can’t be too harsh.
Tracks found? 9 out of 10
Missing track by: Garth Brooks
Subscription plan(s): Discovery (Free for 12 months) – Premium (£4.99 per month) Premium+ (£9.99 per month)
With it’s roots in the French music site Blogmusik, Deezer has grown from it’s Parisian origins to become a world-wide streaming service, boasting around 25 million streamable tracks from 2,000 record labels. That’s quite a lot, all things considered. While we’re talking numbers, Deezer has 30 million users – 4 million of which sign up to the paid subscription service, which will give you some idea of how big a money-maker streaming music service can be.
There’s a bunch of signing in options which automatically link what you’re listening to with either your Google+ or Facebook account. Alternatively, if you’re using Deezer to fulfil your musical guilty pleasures, you can keep your consumption a secret by simply signing up with your email instead.
The design of the player itself is very iTunes-esque, so if you’re familiar with that or any other major media player, you’ll be browsing and finding music in no time.
Curiously, this is the second service that fails to find country music star Garth Brooks. Yorkshire might have embraced the digital age with Plusnet coming from that part of the world, but it seems Nashville isn’t quite ready for the digital music revolution…
Tracks found? 9
Missing track by: Charlie Parker
Subscription plan(s): Napster Unlimited (£5.00 per month) – Napster Unlimited plus Mobile (£10.00 per month)
OK, technically not a particularly new service, but the fully legitimate and corporately approved Napster has managed one of the biggest u-turns in history. Not just music history. Not just technology history. History. Full stop.
It’s gone from a demonic, music industry-destroying thief to respected digital distribution platform. Like the rest of our top five, Napster now works in essentially the same way as the other services listed above. It’s no longer a peer-to-peer file sharing service, and the only music you’ll find on there now is stuff that the artists are completely happy to have online.
The web-based player is a typical iTunes style affair. So much so that if you didn’t glance up to the top of the screen and see the little smiling Napster logo looking back at you, you’d swear you were using the Apple player. “If it’s music, we have it!” say Napster. Well, not really. Not if you’re after a bit of 1943 jazz, anyway. There’s no Charlie Parker to be found here.
Tracks found? 9 out of 10
Missing track by: Garth Brooks
Subscription plan(s): Web (£4.99 per month) – Unlimited web and mobile (£9.99 per month)
No, that’s not a typo. rdio (lower case ‘r’, no ‘a’) is a digital music service launched in 2009. It’s also an absolute pain to get through a spellchecker. Like the other services listed here, the concept remains the same. You stream content from their servers, save cached versions of the tracks to your devices, and can access a bewildering array of music content. It’s the equivalent of having 24 hour, unlimited access to your favourite music store – just if it had virtually every song ever recorded.
rdio integrates with Twitter #music perfectly (but more on that later), and has the most user friendly search engine of the bunch, being able to pick out the right track even with the odd deliberate typo or when you enter both artist and track name at the same time. Yes, we admit it: we tried to break the system.
As an aside, one of the big selling points that rdio use is that they already have more music on their service than you can listen to in a lifetime. So, being investigative types, we started doing the maths. If you accept that they’ve got 20 million songs, which average out at around 3 minutes each, it would take around 124 years to listen to all of the music back-to-back. Don’t you just hate it when marketing blurbs turn out to be true?
Two final things: we’re not quite sure how to pronounce rdio (Arr-dee-oh? Ruh-dee-oh?), and Garth Brooks is missing. Again.
Tracks found? 9 out of 10
Missing track by: Garth Brooks
Subscription plans: Requires a Spotify unlimited premium subscription or any rdio subscription.
If you use your Plusnet broadband to tweet, “like”, blog and generally live via social media, this one’s for you. Twitter #music is a bit of an anomaly on this list. It’s not a streaming service in it’s own right, but rather places a Twitter inspired front-end on either a Spotify or rdio subscription. The similarities don’t end there: like Spotify and rdio, Twitter #music aims to change the way that people find new content from their favourite artists. It’s the baby of the digital music bunch, being launched in April 2013. Integrating with your Twitter account, the app or web-based software package monitors Twitter activity (in a very similar way to how it maps hashtag trends) to bring popular and emerging music to listeners.
Since it’s a Twitter app, it’s no surprise that there’s a built-in tweeting function, so you can quickly and easily post about whatever it is you’re listening to at the time. Clever. The virtual door swings both ways, and the app makes it simple to follow official artist Twitter feeds, and let the musician know exactly what you think of their track – albeit in 140 characters or less.
In what must have been a bit of a smack in the face for the #music developers, Spotify was actually mentioned more frequently amongst users who tweeted the #NowPlaying hashtag than #music itself during the first 24 hours of the highly publicised launch. This is probably due to users realising that the quietly launched #music needed Spotify or rdio to work. Maybe Twitter #music has got a little way to go. Maybe it will one day become a Spotify-beater in it’s own right – but until then, it’s a great way to dress up your Spotify account in a Twitterish way.
Oh and yes, you’ve guessed it: our cowboy hat wearing, guitar playing country star is absent from Twitter #music too.
It’s difficult to give an estimate about how much bandwidth heavy use of Spotify and other streaming services will use up, as there’s a lot of variables that can make a big difference. If you tinker with the settings in all of these players, you can get the data usage down to less than 1Mb a minute by reducing the quality of the audio. A 96kbps (kilobits per second) track uses up about 0.72Mb a minute, but might not sound good enough for the audio purists amongst you. The best quality audio – up at 320kbps, would get through around 2.4Mb a minute, so you can see how striking a balance between bandwidth usage and quality can be an important decision to make.
The audio formats used for these services vary depending on the device you’re using. As an example, the downloadable Spotify player uses an audio format called Ogg Vorbis. Stream the same song via the Spotify mobile app and you’ll be accessing it as an MP3. These decisions are made automatically by the software to give you the best possible listening experience.
Many of the players mentioned allow you to download your favourite tracks or put them into the player cache, saved locally on your machine. This means you’ll only need to effectively download the track once, and each subsequent play of that song won’t use up any bandwidth at all – or at most, a very small amount to register with the service exactly what you’re listening to. The more you increase the amount of space set aside for downloaded tracks, the less bandwidth you’ll use long-term.
All the Plusnet broadband packages deliver more than enough download speed to ensure smooth playback of streaming music, so the only real decision is how much data you’re planning on using each month. With around 10GB of monthly usage – the data allowance you get with the Essentials Broadband package, you could play around 1,422 songs and still have some data allowance left over. In real terms, that’s approximately 71 hours or so of music.
Naturally, you won’t just be using your internet connection to stream music, so even if you’re not planning on playing tracks around the clock, the Essentials Fibre Broadband package with 40GB of data could deliver a whopping 11 days of non-stop, brand new music.
Of course, if you don’t want to have to worry about bandwidth usage at all, then we’d recommend opting for one of the Unlimited packages. Both Plusnet Unlimited Broadband and Unlimited Fibre Broadband deliver exactly that, and allow you a worry-free way to access the literally millions of songs available online. With the possible exception of Garth Brooks.
Once you’ve got used to creating your own playlists, following your favourite artists and sampling music without taking the financial leap of purchasing an album on-spec, you’ll find it’s a strangely addictive but fun way to use your Plusnet broadband connection.
In evidence of how popular online music services like those above are becoming, Google themselves have just launched their All Access music streaming service. This blog was authored before this news broke, however it will be interesting to see how the newcomer fares and gains traction against some of the more longer-established services we’ve covered above.
So as this wander into digital music reaches its closing fanfare, we hope you’ve been introduced to some new ways to open up a whole world of online music. Give them a try and be sure to let us know which one is your favourite – and why? Do you think Google has what it takes to trump them all?
Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ve been recommended an obscure ambient dance track that we’re just going to give a spin …
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