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In Battle of Streaming Music Services, Simplicity Is the Killer Feature

Why did you have to go and make things so complicated?

Vjeran Pavic

Now that we can all finally acknowledge that streaming music is a “thing,” I keep wondering why the companies that offer streaming music services are making things more complicated for consumers as they compete for our ears.

That was my first thought when I tried Apple Music earlier this week. My personal iTunes library was immediately combined with unlimited streaming tracks. I gave Apple’s high-energy Beats 1 radio channel a fair chance. I’ve really enjoyed listening to Apple-curated playlists in the car.

In fact, my experience with Apple Music has made me realize how much I miss listening to good music. For the past few days, my friends and colleagues and I have been sharing tracks and commenting on the recommended playlists (like the “Mom Jeans” one).

Congratulations, Apple: You’ve made us all talk about music again.

But each of the five tabs of Apple’s revamped Music app is like an app itself, a digital smorgasbord of tracks, albums, playlists, recommendations, charts, channels, programming schedules and more. It’s like eating a five-course meal, only each course is a trip to the buffet. It’s very rich — and it might be too much.

This isn’t just a gripe about the learning curve required with Apple Music, though. I’ve found other parts of streaming music services frustrating, too, whether I’m trying to determine which service is worth my $10 per month, or I just want to quickly cue up a song while I’m driving and can’t find it within the app.

In some ways, this is streaming music’s mainstream moment. It has been around for years, but now, Apple is doing it. And the accessibility of it democratizes it. It’s not just for the people who owned hundreds or thousands of vinyls in the ’60s and ’70s, who stitched together awesome mix tapes in the ’80s and who alphabetically organized their towers of lossless CDs in the ’90s.

Apple via YouTube

In some cases, there’s unclear messaging about what a streaming music service is. Most are pretty straightforward: There are free ad-supported models, and paid ad-free.

But they’re not all so simple. Google offers a la carte music purchasing through its Google Play store, similar to Apple’s iTunes purchasing. And now there’s also Google Play Music Subscription — formerly known as Google Play All Access — which costs $10 per month and offers on-demand streaming music, as well as mood- and event-based playlists, technology it acquired when it bought Songza.

And then there is Google-owned YouTube, which lots of people use to cobble together free music playlists — with ads. You can also now watch artists’ official YouTube videos through the Google Play Music Subscription app. Coming soon is YouTube Music Key — also $10 per month — which will strip the ads away from your YouTube experience. If you pay $10 for YouTube Music Key, it covers the cost of your Google Play Music Subscription, too.

This stuff sort of makes my head hurt, especially since I am a Google Play Music subscriber; I like it, and use it regularly on a Nexus tablet at home. I search for a song or tap on a playlist, put it down and walk away from it. I don’t want to think about it beyond that, or wonder which service I’m even using.

Speaking of tapping and walking, some user interfaces feel so cluttered that you’re almost forced to engage with an app when you just want to listen to some music. I’ve already mentioned that the multi-tab experience in Apple Music can feel overwhelming — especially the New tab, from which dozens of options unfold. In some ways, it feels like basic functions (creating a new playlist, shuffling an entire library of music) have been demoted in app hierarchy.

Spotify has taken a lot of steps to streamline its UI, but it’s still tricky. Try creating a new playlist in Spotify’s mobile app from the main menu (you can’t), or in fewer than three clicks (also can’t).

A third source of confusion is the cloud. At their core, cloud-based streaming music services allow users to listen to their preferred or purchased tracks from any Internet-connected device. Simple.

Except it’s not. In Apple’s case, the new Apple Music supplants iTunes Match, a $25-per-year cloud-storage service for music, which is separate from but still a part of iCloud, Apple’s broader cloud service. But if you don’t opt into Apple Music, you can still pay for iTunes Match, for … we’re not sure how long.

Other services offer cloud-storage “lockers” for purchased music; in the case of Google, you can upload 50,000 of your song tracks to a locker for free, but can only mix your purchased music with Google’s streaming tracks if you pay.

This is also assuming that the cloud services work seamlessly across devices — which sometimes they do not.

Vjeran Pavic

Of course, hardcore music fans might wholly disagree with the premise that streaming music apps should be simplified: They welcome the complexity, the discovery, the snippets of new tracks and the first grab at tickets. They may care more about whether their favorite obscure artist is a part of the collection or about bit rates than they do about how an app is designed.

But many people — myself included — still want a “lean-back” experience.

Maybe that’s why Pandora, which is entirely “non-demand” Internet radio, is at least worth noting.

I don’t feel a particular passion or fervor for Pandora, and it’s considered something of a stepchild among streaming music devotees who like to curate their own playlists. The experience can feel unoriginal: If you haven’t ponied up $5 a month for ad-free Pandora One, you’ll hear ads for your local car dealership or an appliance store sale in between a same-sounding rotation of music tracks.

In fact, one music executive suggested to me that the ad-supported Internet radio experience is enough to make a music lover dislike music.

But Pandora has one key thing going for it: It’s the ultimate app for disengaging from an app. You pick a station, you hit play and you go. Maybe you skip a few tracks (until you hit the skip wall and can no longer skip), or feel motivated enough to reach for your device and “like” a track. That’s it.

Pandora is also easy for most consumers to understand. While the company has been experimenting with things like hour-long bouts of sponsored listening, it’s still straightforward enough that it can claim 80 million monthly active listeners, edging out Spotify’s 75 million active users.

Other services — like Spotify, Apple Music and Rdio — offer Internet radio or radio-style features within their apps, too. But that’s assuming you even discover them among the many options, which, again, you might not have the attention span for while you’re trying to get ready in the morning, driving in your car or cooking dinner for people. (Apple, at least, has put its radio option smack in the middle of the app tabs.)

In the battle of the streaming music services, when most of them can claim the same number of tracks, offline listening, a multi-platform approach and some basic cloud services, the standout feature might just be the least sexy: Simplicity.

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