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It is funny how memory works. A simple image, word, even a scent is enough to transport you through time and space in a matter of milliseconds.
Music is one of the biggest memory triggers there is, and if you are anything like me, places are irrevocably linked with songs.
A local band you stumbled upon at a music festival (which happened to me in South Africa.) Some random song that became a staple of nights out with friends (like my year in Sydney, of which this Swedish pop song still reminds me.)
A classic that every resident DJ can’t get enough of (Bob Marley, anyone?) As soon as you hear the the first few chords, your mind conjures vivid images of travels past.
In my case, it’s often something random chosen by technology in the form of Spotify recommendations. That’s why this Danish singer, for example, will always remind me of El Salvador).
I’ve been a loyal user of Spotify for years, traveling alongside the company (with some 70 million other customers) through every new version they’ve launched. The service has been a fundamental part of my travels, recommending songs while on the move, and turning them into cherished travel memories afterwards.
My faithfulness was put to test last year, though, when my first true technology love, Apple, came out with their own version.
Apple Music lured me in, if only to see what else was out there for music streaming services. Now, after a year, I can tell you what my real feelings for both services are.
The Contenders: Spotify vs. Apple Music
One of the pioneers in legal online streaming, Spotify officially launched in 2008. The brainchild of two Swedes, the service was first released in Europe as a free desktop tool to listen to music online without downloading files.
In the eight years since, what started as a small start-up has grown into a billion-dollar business. There’s over 75 million users (twenty million of them paying subscribers) in 60 countries.
Apple Music launched in 2015, among much hype and anticipation from Apple fans. The service promised users could combine their own music acquired from iTunes with the entirety of Apple’s catalog. No more individual purchases, Apple’s entire library at their disposal.
Skip forward six months, and Apple Music has gained 10 million subscribers (it took Spotify over four years to reach that number.) It’s even had the thumbs-up from some artists who had turned their back on Spotify.
Selection: the 30-Million-Song Challenge
Ever since its inception, Spotify boasted the largest selection of songs online: currently 30 million, with some 20,000 new songs every day.
… at least until Apple Music arrived, and started honking the 30-million-song horn itself.
That ties in with experience. It seems both services have roughly the same amount of music, and both allow users to mix and match their own files with the service’s online selection.
However, there is one caveat. Ever heard of Taylor Swift? Spotify certainly has, and probably still has night sweats about why.
She was the spearhead of a movement against Spotify that claimed the service underpaid musicians. After much back and forth between both parties, Swift ended up taking her music down from the site in 2014.
Apple Music learned from Spotify’s mistake, and secured Swift by promising reasonable royalties. She is not the only one, with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke doing something similar months later.
On some occasions, though, the opposite has happened. The Beatles were expected to be found only on Apple Music, due to a long-term agreement with iTunes, but Spotify started streaming their discography in January.
Though if you like Neil Young, then I am afraid there is nothing that can be done.
Interface: Let’s Stay Friends With the User
Maybe it’s just habit, but in terms of interface, Spotify’s has won me over. The design is simple and sleek, and transitions seamlessly between laptop and mobile. No fumbling around the mobile version because it doesn’t fit the screen, no hidden tabs. Spotify has made the user experience smooth sailing.
As a passionate Apple lover, I expected Apple Music to have the minimalist design and streamlined interface of other Apple products. What a disappointment. Using Apple Music was a confusing endeavor from day one. It’s still largely intertwined with iTunes, since it draws its catalog from there, and you end up switching between Apple Music and iTunes constantly.
It slows down the experience, as well as being inherently confusing. Half the time I didn’t know whether I was on Apple Music or iTunes, and whether I had to buy or could simply download whatever I was looking for.
The mobile version is unnecessarily cluttered, with multiple tabs that don’t seem to be always updated. When I first used it, the “Hot Albums” section featured largely a Carole King album from 1971… next to Nick Jonas’ last single. Color me confused.
If you run on Android, forget it for now. Users complain the app is inconsistent and choppy, taking a considerable amount of time to load. Wait a few months for a faster, better version to be released.
Availability: To the End of the World
In terms of availability, Apple Music wins by a landslide: 113 countries as of February 2016, versus 59 for Spotify.
To put it in perspective, there are 59 countries where you can use Apple Music but not Spotify, but the reverse is true in only five: Andorra, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Monaco and Uruguay.
There’s something else to take into account in terms of geography, especially if you’re a long-term traveler or planning to be one soon. Even if you’re from one of the 54 countries where both Apple and Spotify operate, you might need to switch locations in your service when moving to another country.
In the case of Spotify, you have a choice: switch countries in your account as you move, provided it is available in your destination, or keep it set as your country of residence or wherever you created your Spotify account. If you decide to keep your original country, Spotify allows for 30 days of usage abroad. After this you won’t be able to access your account.
The solution? Use a VPN connected to your home country to log in every now and then, or trust somebody from home with your login info, and ask them to use Spotify as you once a month.
In the case of Apple Music, you should be good: your account, just as with iTunes, stays in the country you created it in. This makes it a better option if you’re on the move constantly, or are currently on a long-term trip.
Note you’ll only be allowed to access the music selection from your “home” country, just like what happens with iTunes and apps. If you wanted to listen to content from your new digs, you’d need to open an account there (which might require a local bank account or credit card.)
Price: For Whatever It’s Worth
In terms of investment, Apple Music costs US$9.99/month per individual subscription, or US$14.99/month per family subscription (which requires iCloud Family Sharing).
At the time of writing, Apple Music also offers a three-month trial period — though there have been rumors that this will end at some point.
Spotify offers a free subscription with limited functionality, which gets stopped by ads and does not offer offline listening. In the desktop and tablet version you are allowed to skip songs on a playlist as many times as you want, but in the mobile version you can only do so a few times per use.
In order to unleash all of Spotify’s potential, you’ll need to sign up for Spotify Premium, which allows users to download music, listen offline and choose songs. The subscription goes for US$9.99/month, and offers a 30-day trial. It also offers a 50% discount for students or family members
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But Wait, What About Pandora/Deezer/[Insert Another Music Streaming Service]?
I know, I know, Spotify and Apple Music aren’t alone in the music streaming business. There are several other services, from US-based Pandora to French-born Deezer, to Google Play Music, to Rdio and more.
I decided to focus on Spotify and Apple Music because they’re the two services I’ve found to be more widely available around the world, and the two most popular. Pandora is barely available outside of the US, whereas Deezer has about half the users Apple Music has.
If you’re loyal to any of the others, though, that’s great! Please tell us why in the comments.
So, Which One Should You Pick?
In all honesty, I found both Spotify and Apple Music pretty effective in their tasks of delivering online music straight to your headphones. Which one you pick depends mostly on your priorities and lifestyle.
Would you rather stay with a free service? Are you stationary in a country for most of the year, or constantly on the move? Do you mainly use mobile or laptop? Do you love Taylor Swift?
Answer these questions, and you’ll soon know where the key to your musical memories lies.
As for me, I am going to stick with Spotify, at least for now. There are simply too many shared moments between us.
Images via Brooke Hoyer (man with headphones in stairs b/w), ThisParticularGreg (girl with headphones), Andrew Mager (Spotify desktop), Spotify (girls on bus, Spotify interface), Apple (Apple Music interface).