What Would Chris Do? Music Streaming

There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is.  ~William P. Merrill

I really enjoy music, most every genre.  I’m usually plugged in; if life is a series of soundtracks, I must have a 100-CD changer.  My parents are a big reason for this, as my dad was always tinkering with his Quadraphonic stereo, complete with reel-to-reels, receivers and a bunch of other goodies.  And my mom, well she has the singing voice of an angel – hearing her singing is one of my fondest childhood memories.  In today’s world, we’re fortunate to have a wide assortment of options for our listening pleasure.  I’ll share what I use, and why, in order of value to me.

Microsoft Zune

Yes, I have a love for all most things Microsoft, and have been burned countless times by their attempts to be relevant in this space (you hear me, PlaysForSure team?!).  But I want to focus on the Zune application for a minute to explain why there are my #1.  With the Zune Music Pass, Microsoft finally got the all-you-can-eat model perfected.  For $14.99/mo you get access to a very large catalog that can be listened to online via your PC or Xbox 360.  imageAnd, you can download music to your Windows Phone or Zune player, limited only by the capacity of your device.  Finally, you get your choice of 10 free tracks to download and keep each month.  More on that in a minute.  Now, I’ve heard the critic’s response that “Well, but I don’t own the music.  If I cancel the service, all that music goes away and I’m left with nothing.”  Yeah.  So what?  Let me explain through an example.  I’m a Billy Joel fan, and have downloaded all of his albums to my phone and Zune player.  Now, I can listen to Uptown Girl any time I want to.  If I decide to cancel the service, well, I can always go out and buy the album, couldn’t I?  So what have I lost, save the time it takes to buy the album?  And, because I get 10 free tracks a month, at today’s prices I’m only spending $4.99/mo for the service.

There are 3 issues I have with ZMP however, one which has recently been addressed.  #1 is that the credits don’t accumulate.  Each month, you get a little note in the upper-right corner of the Zune app to inform you that 10 credits are available.  It’s easy to miss.  And, because most albums have 11 or 12 tracks, you do have to buy additional credits if your idea is to purchase a full album.  It would be nice to have the option of saving credits, rather than them expiring at the end of the month.  Recently, they announced a price decrease to $9.99/mo for the ZMP, increasing the number of devices to 4 but removing the 10 credits.  I think this is a step in the right direction, but still think subscribers are being cheated in not being able to accumulate those credits.  The 2nd issue I have is with the Zune desktop app itself.  It’s a resource hog and frankly could use some freshening up of the interface.  But, it pales in comparison to Apple iTunes and Seesmic Desktop in that regard, so they have that going for them.  Lastly but probably the most curious is the omission of Internet Radio.  There is a radio feature within both the Zune Player and Zune App for WP7, but neither of these nor the Desktop application support this.  To me, it shows a real lack of focus on music streaming market and understanding of the target audience.

The best implementation of Zune is with their Windows Phone 7 integration, recently improved further with the Windows Phone 7.5 “Mango” refresh.  In addition to syncing with the catalog of music I’ve downloaded, I can search for artists, songs or albums and play them immediately.  And with the Shazaam application I can hear a song on the radio, use their WP7 app to identify it, and immediately play it.  That’s cool.  But again, no internet radio.

So in summary, if you have an Xbox 360 or Windows Phone, Zune is a must-have because of the new competitive pricing for all-you-can-stream music and superb integration with those devices.  It’s not going to sway an iPhone user, as Microsoft has not released a Zune player for the iOS platform (a big mistake).  And, if you are someone who absolutely needs internet radio integrated, you’ll want to look elsewhere.

Spotify

At first I didn’t really get what the big deal was.  Spotify began as a service only available in Europe while they worked on licensing agreements with US record companies, and then in the US this past summer by invitation only (which I was a part of).  Earlier this month it was opened to everyone with a Facebook login.  After using the service over the past couple of months, imageI’m blown away by the simplicity of the interface and the depth of social integration.  Frankly, this is what the Microsoft Zune team had the opportunity to build 2 years ago.  What makes Spotify so great?  3 things:

1.  Did I mention that it has a free service?  With the free service, you get to stream from a catalog of over 15M songs.  And, unlike Pandora, you can create your own playlists rather than merely suggesting an artist orFollow me on Spotify song and having the service create a playlist of songs you may like.

2.  Social integration.  You can share your music playlists and individual songs you are listening to via Facebook, twitter and Windows Messenger.  I wish you could share individual tracks (like Zune), but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s in the works.  I like learning what my friends like to listen to.  And, the option of subscribing to playlists they create adds a DJ-esque feature that is becoming a social trend with music lovers.

3.  Pricing Plans.  In addition to their free service, Spotify offers a $4.99/mo plan (no advertising) and a $9.99/mo plan (offline and mobile devices).  I like choice, and Spotify offers something for every budget.

Are their any downsides to Spotify? The only missing components I see right now are support for Windows Phone 7 and availability on the Roku or other set top boxes.  Once it conquers these, it will likely become my preferred service.

TuneIn

I first discovered internet radio years ago thru services like Shoutcast.  As a medium, it is still the best way to indulge in an eclectic range of musical styles from around the globe.  In fact, my first forayimage into Apple iTunes was because of the internet radio feature built into the product (again, a missed opportunity by Zune), and was cemented with the ability to access C89.5 FM, one of the best dance & electronic radio stations, from anywhere.   TuneIn offers a great service for accessing these stations on the web as well as through mobile devices, including Windows Phone 7.  It also supports terrestrial (“traditional”) stations as well, making it an ideal application for catching sports or news from other cities.  If there is a fault with it, it’s a technical one – if using the Windows Phone 7 application, it won’t play in the background while you read email, etc.  But I expect that to be resolved soon with the release of WP 7.5.

Pandora

Probably the most well known of the music streaming services, it quickly gained support because of the plethora of devices on which it can be ran.  Many blu-ray players, smartphones and even some TVs have the service built-in now.  It’s still my go-to for parties and casual listening – you enter the name of an artist or song you like and it just works.  The downside is that you don’t have the ability to create playlists, which drastically minimizes its value now that Spotify is available in the US.

imagePhew, that’s a lot, isn’t it?  Like I said, I listen to music quite a bit of the time, and can honestly say that Zune, Spotify and TuneIn each play a specific role for me.  But, I can see the list paring down to just Spotify and TuneIn over time, should the number of devices each supports increases.

I like sharing my collections and welcome invites from Spotify or Zune, so don’t be a stranger on the dancefloor.