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Sunday, 9 March 2014

Which music streaming service to choose to replace WE7?

[Short link to this article if you need it - http://goo.gl/nKqxM7 or retweet me ]

I've written before about the reasons why I'm more than happy to pay for music streaming services and how it hasn't diminshed the amount of music I pay for, but recently WE7 discontinued it's "on-demand" subscription service. With it's demise occurring after it's acquisition by Tesco and a move exclusively to a zero-cost "radio station" model after the rebranding to BlinkBox Music I had to start looking around for an alternative (Thanks to the team at Gareth and Georgie at WE7 for recovering my playlists! I do still recommend BlinkBox to those who don't need explicit selections). Spotify was the obvious one of course, but part of what I liked about WE7 was supporting the underdog, so my preference would be to support a bit of competition and go for an alternative. So what are the options?

Spotify

Everyone knows what this is, and most people have probably tried it at some point, so not a lot more needs to be said.

Grooveshark

The less said about this service the better. While they've now got agreements for a lot of the music they're streaming that was not always the case, so purely on that basis I can't really support them. However the interface is nice, clean and easy to use

Deezer

Deezer had an offer running at the time where you could get the "full" service (including mobile use) for the price of the desktop only one. That looked like a pretty good deal.

Youtube Mix radio

There's always the option of trying the option that a lot of people now use for consuming music - youtube!
Of course from a bandwidth perspective it's not ideal since it's streaming video but still ... Unfortunately this doesn't let me pay to remove adverts so it was a bit of a non-starter for what I was looking for but I'm including it as it might be useful to others, and youtube probably the easiest way to share playlists publicly.

rd.io

I'll be honest I hadn't heard too much about rdio previously, but a colleague recommended it to me. It seems to have a similar range of artists to the other options, and the prices were the same too, so that became another option.

last.fm

While I use last.fm for scrobbling I was looking for more than just a radio service, so ultimately it went the same way as blinkbox music and was eliminated early on.


SO HOW DO YOU CHOOSE ONE?

With all the services being the same price (£4.99/month desktop, £9.99 desktop+mobile) [EDIT 27/12/2014: Deezer and Spotify have now withdrawn the desktop option unless you're an existing customer] there was nothing to choose between them on that basis, so I personally drew up a list of pros and cons for each service. I'd tried all of them, I didn't want to use a native application (Part of what made me subscribe to WE7 was that it was browser/flash based so would work on the Solaris desktop I was using at the time). All three can work in a flash-enabled browser [EDIT 27/12/2014: Rd.io doesn't require Flash]. last.fm scrobbling was also a requirement and all did that (as well as posting your plays to facebook). I also tried using playlists on all the sites too (My near-complete 2013 playlist exists on all of WE7/BlinkBox, Spotify, Deezer and rd.io if you want to try each of them)


Serviceproscons
Spotify
(Sweden)
  • The biggest name
  • Lots of playlists
  • Most people sharing streams/playlists give spotify links
  • While not the case at the time I was deciding, you an now use the mobile app without paying
  • Facebook integration seems most advanced
  • Still mostly based around a native app
  • Picky about browser versions on play.spotify.com
  • Peer-to-peer protocol
Deezer
(France)
  • Allows uploading of your own MP3s
  • Cute "mixing desk" feature, but needs quick machine
  • Desktop version (just) works under Dolphin+flash on Android
  • The numbers suggest it actually has more members than Spotify
  • Good range of "smartTV" support
  • MP3 uploads don't scrobble to last.fm
  • Seemed harder to find some specific tracks than on the others
  • Always seemed to auto-play when loaded
  • Too easy to accidentally start play of a track when browsing
  • Only native desktop app is for Windows8 (although I didn't want one anyway!) 
rd.io
(US)
  • Search seems very good, even on mobile
  • "Remote control" lets you use mobile to control playback on another machine
  • Radio stations have "Artist only" -> "Adventurous" slider (Something I always wished WE7 had added)
  • User interface feels easiest to navigate (although not perfect)
  • Social aspect - recommendations and "following artists" nicely integrated (although limited artists are on it)
  • Memory use seems about double that of Spotify/Deezer
  • No way to play your own tracks from the UI
  • Search box sometimes seems to fail to respond to the backspace key
  • Doesn't appear to have a "queue this next" feature - only "play later/last" or "play immediately"
  • Doesn't contribute streaming counts to the UK Official Chart

In terms of "killer features" my decision was made by the following summary points:
  • rd.io's memory usage was a concern
  • Deezer's MP3 upload option was offset by the inability to scrobble them, so that wasn't the advantage I'd hoped for
  • My home PVR was still on Firefox 11 (don't judge me!) and Spotify didn't like that
  • rd.io's remote control was very slick and allowed control of hifi playback from tablet
  • rd.io's "adventurous" slider was something didn't appear to exist anywhere else. 
So all were flawed, but ultimately (and I procrastinated for a while!) I decided that for me rd.io's other features outweighed the large memory usage, and so that's the one I now subscribe too. It just seemed like the most innovative product in the market so was worth supporting on that basis. A decision backed up by the fact that they teamed up with Shazam (the original iPhone "killer app") to dynamically create add "shazamed" tracks to an rd.io playlist - an rdio exclusive for now!

It's worth noting that even though I've only subscribed to the rd.io desktop offering, I can still use the remote control from the Android app so I don't need to have the PVR screen active to control playback from there, although it does nag you to upgrade when you start the app. Another point to note is that when you're on the free trial of rd.io you can't use it from a remote country (Deezer doesn't have this restriction). That restriction goes away when you start paying, and you get the ability to access all the tracks available from your home country when connecting from elsewhere.

[P.S. After drafting this article Spotify completed a purchase of The Echo Nest, which amongst other things provides a "radio" recommendation service used not only by Spotify, but also some of it's competitors such as rdio and Pandora. Is this an aggressive takeover to cause trouble for their competition? Maybe but let's hope not - here's a positive view of the takeover from an Echo Nest employee. I worry that any company that gets sufficiently big in any sector will be able to make such purchases and have control, and Spotify's recently had a $250M injection while it's competitors have been laying off staff. So I don't think such things are good for competition in the marketplace, and therefore I'm even more happy to continue to support rdio - I like to put my money where my mouth is]

[EDIT 27/12/2014: I actually stopped subscribing to rd.io for a while after they failed for whatever reason to get included in the Official Charts after they started including streaming. I played with a 3 month trial of Google Play Music that I got with mny Chromecast but was overall not especially impressed with it, not least because it doesn't natively scrobble to last.fm and the auto-generated "stations"/recommendations aren't as well tuned as I've seen elsewhere. So I've resubscribed to rd.io despite the lack of chart contribution mostly because it's the only one that still offers the £4.99 tier and I know it works well. I also got a trial of BlinkBox Music's new subscription service - normally £4/month - but they don't let you have specific plays, only their stations, so that's no use.]

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