They're the latest breed of digital music services, offering that early Napster feeling of being able to listen to nearly anything -- instantly -- but for a small monthly fee. You're in total control of what you're listening to with these services, making them feel entirely different from streaming-radio services like Pandora and iTunes Radio, which are free (with advertising), but pick which tracks to play based on your preferences. And unlike the original Napster, subscription music services are completely legal, with support from all the major record labels and many independent labels as well.
So is paying a monthly fee for music better than buying tracks? And how are you supposed to pick from the multitudes of options, from Spotify to Rdio, and newcomers like Beats Music?
This primer will give you an overview of what's good and bad about subscription music services, plus what to look for if you're thinking about subscribing. Let's start with the good:
Why they're great
Unlimited access to tons of music: Subscription music services typically have music libraries of 15 to 20 million tracks and you can stream as much as you want for about $10 per month. It's not exactly instant access to all of the music in the world, but sometimes it feels like it, making it great for sampling tons of new music that would be too expensive to buy outright. I'd probably never buy all 12 boxed sets (!) of the "Complete Motown Singles," but it's great to be able to sample tracks from all of them for a flat monthly fee.
Less music library management: Is your iTunes library a mess? Mine is too. Subscription music services take most of the headache out of managing your digital music library. There's less worrying about syncing your music between devices because it's all centrally stored and organized in the cloud -- by someone else. Album art and track information is all taken care of, plus there are fewer of those stray tracks cluttering up your library that always seem to find their way into iTunes and other media library programs.
Free trials, no long-term commitment: If you're curious about trying out one of the services, the good news is that all of them offer a free trial period, typically lasting from a week all the way up to a full month. Subscriptions are generally also on a month-to-month basis, so it's easy to cancel after a month or two if it's not working out for you.
Why they're not perfect
No ownership: The big downside to subscription music services is that you don't actually own any of the music you download. If you cancel your subscription, all of your downloads and playlists go away. If you're not comfortable with the idea of "renting" music, as opposed to buying, subscription services probably aren't for you.
Fully loaded with DRM: While music downloads from stores like iTunes and Amazon no longer involve frustrating DRM restrictions, that's not the case with music downloads from subscription music services. The files you download are locked to your subscription, so you can't move and share them freely like you can with a regular MP3 file.
Gaps in the library: While the streaming libraries of most subscription services are vast, there are still some significant gaps. Some megapopular artists, such as The Beatles and AC/DC, aren't available, while other artists will often keep their newest releases out to encourage you to purchase them. So while your $10-a-month subscription might take care of most of your music-listening needs, it's not completely comprehensive.
Artist compensation: Subscription music services may be increasingly popular with consumers, but they're more controversial in the music industry. Many feel that the payments to artists are unfair, often amounting to fractions of a penny per stream. Thom Yorke and David Byrne have publicly spoken out against the payment structure, while Spotify and others maintain that payments will increase as the services become more popular.
It's up for everyone to decide for themselves how comfortable they are with the artist compensation issue, but you may want to consider supporting your favorite artists through other means as well, such as digital downloads, merchandise, and concert tickets.
How do I choose between Spotify, Rdio, Google Play Music All Access, Rhapsody, Beats Music, and so on?
By my count, there are at least 12 subscription music services: Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker Radio, Google Play Music All Access, Beats Music, Xbox Music Pass, Sony Music Unlimited, Deezer, Napster, Rara, and Grooveshark. However, despite all the options, they're all pretty similar -- you typically pay around $10 per month for unlimited streaming on the Web, mobile, and at home.
Beyond the big picture, there are a few details you'll want to consider when picking a service.
User interface: I'd argue that this is the most important factor. Each service has its own quirks, and one service's interface may suit your listening habits well, while another might make it frustrating to listen to music the way you enjoy. For example, I almost never use playlists, but I like being able to easily dive deep into an artist's discography. Luckily, free trials make it easy to try out a few services and see which one best suits you.
Family plans: Many services offer family plan pricing, making it cheaper for multiple users in a household to stream. Rdio lets you add an additional family member for $8 per month (and additional family members at $5 per month), while Beats Music is particularly generous with AT&T subscribers, offering five accounts for just $15 a month. Despite promises in the past, Spotify does not offer family plan pricing yet.
Which devices are supported? Nearly all of the services offer apps for both iOS and Android, plus a way to listen on your computer, whether it's a Web app or a dedicated desktop application. I'm a fan of services like Spotify and Rdio that offer true desktop apps -- rather than only Web apps -- that respond to keyboard shortcuts for playback controls like pause and fast-forward.
In addition to mobile and computer-based listening, some subscription music services also offer support for other standalone devices. For example, Xbox Music Pass is available on the Xbox 360/Xbox One, while Sony Music Unlimited is available on the PS4/PS3. Sonos' family of products are particularly flexible, supporting Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, Beats Music, and Slacker. Most services are available on the Apple TV using AirPlay from another iOS device, while Spotify and Rdio have dedicated apps on the Roku's boxes.
Offline support: Most apps are built to stream music straight from the Web, but sometimes you want to listen when you don't have Internet access -- think subways, airplanes, and so on. Offline support is often quirky; for example, Spotify lets you sync music in playlists only, rather than directly syncing tracks and albums. This is another good opportunity to take advantage of a free trial to make sure the service and its app work with how you listen to music.
Social features: Many subscription music services are also integrated with social-media services like Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes these features can be tedious -- I don't need to tweet every song I'm listening to -- but they can also be used to follow what your friends are listening to. If the social features are appealing to you, you should see which service most of your friends are listening to. If all your friends are listening to Spotify and you like sharing music with them, you'll get more out of the social features by going with Spotify.
Music library: For the most part, all of the services have similar music libraries, but there are definitely some differences. Spotify presumably paid big bucks for exclusive rights to the entire Pink Floyd discography for on-demand streaming, while I've always felt that Rhapsody has the best jazz and classical offerings. Again, it helps to try before you buy to see what service is the best fit for you.
Ultimately, the best choice is going to come down to your personal listening habits, which is why it's hard to call an official winner. I personally use Rdio because it's a good fit for me. I love the user interface on iOS, its simple offline-listening management system, the dedicated desktop app, its family plan pricing, and the fact that it syncs playback between the mobile and desktop app -- I can pause on my phone and pick up listening to the same song on my laptop.
But other services will better suit other listeners. Spotify is particularly great for integrating your personal music with subscription music on the desktop app. Google Play Music All Access and Xbox Music Pass offer a compelling mix of cloud locker storage (more on that later) and subscription music streaming. And while I haven't given Beats Music a try yet, its focus on editorial curation -- by humans, not just algorithms -- seems promising. (See David Carnoy's hands-on with Beats Music for more information.) Again, it mostly comes down to how you listen to music.
What about Pandora, iTunes Radio, Songza, and similar services?
In addition to subscription music services, there's a whole host of streaming-radio services available, such as Pandora, iTunes Radio, Songza, 8tracks, Aupeo, and Last.FM (which, like CNET, is owned by CBS). These services are more like traditional radio, where you don't get to pick what they play, but they're based around what artists you like. They're typically free with advertising, with the option to pay a monthly fee to make the ads go away.
Of course, there's a lot of overlap between streaming-radio services and subscription music services, as most subscription music services also offer a streaming-radio option.
OK, but what about Amazon Cloud Player, iTunes Match, Google Play Music, and similar services?
In addition to subscription music and streaming-radio services, there are also cloud locker services, which store your personal music collection in the cloud. Many also offer "scan-and-match" functionality, which searches your computer for music you own, then adds it to your cloud library, skipping the tedious upload process. Some of these services offer a free tier (5GB from Amazon, 20,000 songs from Google), but you'll need to pay more for more storage.
And again, there's some overlap between these services and subscription music services. With Google Play Music All Access and Xbox Music Pass, you can blend your subscription content with your personal music collection, so you don't have to jump to a separate app every time you want to listen to The Beatles.