Digital DIY Part Four: How to tune in to the best sounds in online music - a late adopters' guide
In the latest of the Irish Independent's Digital DIY series, Adrian Weckler takes you through the basics of digital music streaming, for those new to the concept. How hard is it to build albums? Can you play your old music there? And which are the best services?
Band on the run: While you'll find most artists easily on music streaming services, some, such as (l-r) The Beatles, Taylor Swift, Prince and Garth Brooks, have been reluctant to allow their music to stream.
What is Digital music streaming?
It's playing music over an internet service, just like you might watch a video that's on YouTube or a film on Netflix.
Is it free or do i pay for it?
Most of the services that give you full flexibility cost around €10 per month.
Are there any free options?
Yes, but there are significant restrictions on how you use the services, especially on a phone. For example, Spotify has a free option that's supported by ads. But the drawback is that if you use it on a phone, you can only shuffle through songs in a playlist or from a particular musician: you can't just pick whatever song you want. This restriction isn't there for the free option on a PC or tablet, although you'll be interrupted by ads and you can't listen to the music offline. Lastly, the free tier of services limits the audio quality.
Is there a minimum broadband speed I have to have for this to work?
Yes, but it's quite modest. Most streaming services will play reliably at 0.5Mbs, which is a fraction of what's available to most homes or mobile operator services.
If I use these services on a phone, will they tear through my monthly data allowance?
If you have anything less than 1GB of data per month and you use a streaming service for at least 20 minutes a day, you'll be in trouble unless you're listening to the same songs over and over, in which case your phone will use a lot less data.
Do I always have to be online to listen to streaming services?
No. Some paid-for services let you listen to songs when you're offline as well as online.
How does that work? Am I downloading these songs?
Basically, yes. Your phone or tablet is allowed to download the songs so that if you're on a plane or in a bad coverage area and want to listen to your favourite music, you can do so in the same way you would with an iPod or a CD player. The only qualification is that this offline availability only lasts as long as you keep paying your monthly subscription. The month after your payments end, the music vanishes from your phone.
Can I burn music from these services onto CDs?
I've built up a significant CD and iTunes collection. Is there any way of getting that into the digital account?
Yes. Many services - including Spotify and Google Play - allow you to incorporate music files you own yourself (including those on iTunes) into playlists. The way to do this on each service varies. On Spotify, for example, you can't do it on a phone unless you have set it up on a PC first: go into 'preferences' in the pulldown menu and then 'add a source'. When you log into Spotify on your phone or tablet again, it will be synchronised. Alternatively, Apple has a service that matches music you may have saved into iTunes with your online Apple Music streaming service, but you have to pay €10 per month for the whole service to avail of that.
How easy is it to start using a music streaming service from scratch for a tech beginner?
Unfortunately, it's a bit tricky. It's harder, for example, than setting up things like email services or social messaging apps (such as Whatsapp). Navigation isn't especially intuitive and organising playlists can be particularly tricky as most services save songs or albums into different playlist areas depending on how you save them.
Do some bands or musicians only appear on certain services?
A few high-profile pop stars have recently attracted publicity for the digital services they won't allow their music to appear on. The biggest example is Taylor Swift, who won't let her music onto Spotify because she claims it doesn't pay musicians and record companies enough money. However, she has allowed her catalogue onto Apple's rival music streaming service after persuading Apple to back down on not paying musicians during Apple's free three-month introductory period for subscribers. Prince recently took down his music catalogue from Spotify in favour of rival service Tidal in what is probably a calculated commercial move.
Are there any other significant gaps in the music catalogues online?
You won't find The Beatles' music on any streaming service, although it is expected to land sooner or later. (It took Apple years to persuade them onto iTunes.) For Irish music fans, Garth Brooks is another notable absentee. And Radiohead's Thom Yorke refuses to allow his solo work to be represented there. Neil Young, too, is currently yanking his music catalogue from mainstream streaming services, including Spotify and Apple Music. The veteran rockstar claims that this is because the audio quality of regular streaming degrades his music. (Coincidentally, he is also trying to promote his own rival digital music service, Pono.) But in general, the holdouts are becoming a lot rarer. Both AC/DC and Metallica, which both stayed away from digital music for years, are happily being streamed by the major services. Others who were often fussy about licensing, such as Michael Jackson or Queen, are there in force too.
Is it worth paying extra for 'high definition' music options?
Not unless you're a real audiophile with superb equipment. If you're going to access your music on your smartphone, tablet or PC with regular headphones or a basic speaker, you won't hear the difference in audio quality.
The three main music streaming services
Which digital music service should you sign up to? Here are three of the best options.
Free option: Yes, ad-supported on mobile, tablet and PC.
Paid options: €10 per month, €15 per month for a couple.
Bottom line: Spotify is the biggest music streaming service by some distance and, so far, is maintaining that lead over well-funded rivals such as Apple Music and Google Play. The service has two main advantages over rivals. First, it makes new music discovery easy because one can see what friends are listening to on their playlists. It is also the only major streaming service with a free option on mobile phones, even if this free option only allows shuffled songs within playlists.
2. Apple Music
Free option: No.
Paid options: €10 per month or €15 per month for 'family membership' (six users).
Bottom line: For those who want access to their iTunes music on the move without having to download all of the tracks onto new devices each time, this may be the most attractive music streaming service. That's because in addition to having a large catalogue of music itself, it lets you virtualise your own iTunes collection and play it on other devices without taking up the space that downloading them would cause. (Watch out for Apple swapping some versions of songs for others, though.) Setting up Apple Music is also probably the easiest to do of any of the services. It smoothly draws you in by asking a few questions about what kind of music you like.
Free option: No.
Paid options: €10 per month or €20 per month for high definition version.
Bottom line: Tidal has two main pitches for your custom. The first is a celebrity-driven one, with Jay Z, Beyoncé and a bunch of other millionaire music stars now running the service. Its main offering, though, is a high definition audio version of the same music. If you're really into your audio quality (and have really good stereo equipment or headphones to play it on), this might be worth it. Otherwise, you probably won't notice the difference.