Part 3 - Stations, Playlists, and Album/Song Streaming
Station to Station
Another big pain point for users will be how these services offer their music. Most of them have "stations," either pre-programmed stations or stations that get built around an album, song, or artist. These stations work best for folks who just want to sit back and hear songs without necessarily knowing what's coming next.
This was a model first made popular by Pandora, and it's based squarely on the terrestrial radio station model that is nearly a century old. Since Pandora launched, almost every service has adopted it because it's an obvious model. The downsides are that you get little control over what you're hearing. The upside is that it can be a great discovery tool, depending on the quality of the service's algorithm.
Since I haven't listened to all of the services, I am hesitant to offer a winner on this front.
Playlists are another approach, and is one that is quite similar to the station model in that they are lists of songs. Playlists can offer you more control, and at the least you'll know what's coming. The real difference is that some playlists are generated by algorithms and some are generated by people.
Beats Music is probably the standout winner here. While there is algorithm-generated content on the service, the backbone of Beats's effort to differentiate itself is curated playlists designed to fit moods and situations. If Beats Music, which has been purchased by Apple, is able to claw out significant market share, it will be due to its human-curated content.
Apple's own iTunes Radio also has human-created playlists, but these are much more limited than with Beats. Apple has mainly focused on celebrity-curated lists that go hand in hand with promoting new album releases. It's a solid feature, but it won't make everyone switch to iTunes Radio. The proof is in Apple's purchase of Beats Music.
From an algorithm-generated playlist standpoint, Spotify and Rdio are the leaders, and both services have rabid fan bases. Spotify, in particular, is clearly doing something right.
For many users, the ability to simply stream any song or album is what they really want from their music rental service. Spotify is the market leader here, and Beats Music looks like a strong contender, too. Rdio, again, has ardent fans. All three services have similar catalogs, and they're priced the same. Pick one and you'll probably be OK.
As I noted up top, this is a crowded space, and within three years I expect it will be less crowded, not more. It is also likely to be dominated by services owned by deep pocketed parent companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and maybe Microsoft. Facebook could get into the game, too, and if Marissa Meyer sets her eyes on this market, expect Yahoo! to make a dent.
All of these companies can approach this market as a value-added service for their broader ecosystems. They won't need to worry about turning a profit, and they'll have the clout to ink deals that work for them. The road to such a future will be paved with closures, mergers, and acquisitions.
I think the winners in streaming music will be those who best tackle discovery. On this front Beats Music has an edge. When it is eventually combined with Apple's iTunes empire, Apple will be a formidable force in this market. To that end, if I decide to subscribe to any of these services, it will be Beats Music, and I would not have said that before I began researching for this article.
My next choice would be Spotify.
Edit: Having added Rhapsody to my comparison, I find it to be a compelling service. The company was one of the first streaming competitors, and it has had many years to develop its service. From a feature standpoint, Rhapsody has a lot of checks. It's also available on a number of large devices, though a company spokesperson told most user are listening on their mobile devices.
Image courtesy of Shuttersock.