Music has always had a central place in my life, as I find it is a medium that allows one to express oneself in ways beyond what might normally seem possible. Technology in turn has been foundational to my life as well, having been fortunate to explore some of the first personal computers back in the late 1970s, as well as seeing the introduction of CDs and digital music in the 1980s.
Today digital music is commonplace and instead of the need for CDs, we have the ability to stream entire music libraries at our fingertips. So it seems like a pretty amazing world, at first glance. However, with my experiences in trying to pick a music platform over the last year, I’m not so sure anymore. If anything, what I’m noticing the most is an increasing complexity of these platforms that is making them not that enjoyable to use.
Without a doubt though, digital music technology has improved dramatically. The ability to stream lossless / hi-res music with Dolby Atmos is amazing, assuming you have the speakers or headphone capability to maximize these technologies. Having an amazing set of headphones, as well as a decent Sonos wireless home sound system, I’ve been enjoying the ability to experiment with these newer technologies quite a bit.
But even though there are a variety of platforms now that have the ability to stream this higher quality audio, such as Apple Music and Amazon Music, one thing kept popping up, time and again, that made me question the music platform I was using. I’m talking about the experience of actually using it. Coming from a background in web design, I realize the importance of usability and user interface design and, in my opinion, a lot of these services are failing miserably in terms of actually creating an enjoyable experience in using them.
Initially years back, before lossless / hi-res music was introduced, Spotify was my primary platform and it really set the bar high for an amazing experience. Spotify Connect made it stupidly easy to connect to smart speakers, with even recent articles on it still touting it as “the streaming world’s best feature.” But even beyond that, the extremely well-designed interface of the Spotify app just made sense and a joy to use, especially in terms of managing your library of music. Seriously, I think my only pet peeve about Spotify when I was using it was that I wished the lyrics tab at the bottom could be redesigned or hidden, so it wasn’t so noticeable.
When Spotify paid millions to Joe Rogan in 2020 to be exclusively on their podcast platform (which I never really used), I really didn’t like the direction they were heading but I stuck with the platform nevertheless. But when music platforms like Apple Music and Amazon Music started adding lossless music to their platforms in 2021 and Joe Rogan started spouting more and more misinformation about COVID, I decided to finally start searching for another platform near the beginning of 2022, when Neil Young decided to leave the platform.
Over the last year, I’ve tried Apple Music, Amazon Music, Tidal Music, and Deezer and I can honestly say that each music platform has its own strengths but also its own weaknesses.
Tidal Music and Deezer quickly fell to the wayside because of one strange thing I realized I just had to have which was album covers of the original albums. For example, I noticed that platforms would pay licensing for collection albums of the artist’s best work (which had different album covers) but not for their original albums, yet seeing those original album covers when playing a song was essential for me because when I played music, the album cover visually embodies the emotions tied to the music. So keeping the right album cover for the music was really important to me.
Leaving Apple Music and Amazon Music as the two remaining affordable platforms (since to get all of the similar features with Tidal Music, you’d have to pay $20/month), I proceeded to flip back and forth between these platforms over the next year. Luckily I was able to get a ton of free trials from Apple Music (mainly via the Shazam app), whenever I switched away from Amazon Music, so it made it not so expensive in testing them out.
Unfortunately after flipping back and forth between them though, I realized that neither service really won out overall because their weaknesses were so dominant, that their strengths seemed negligible in comparison.
For example, I loved playing Apple Music from my Apple TV, as I really enjoyed the visual experience of the Now Playing interface and album artwork but I hated having to AirPlay the music to my Sonos speakers to get lossless quality, anytime I wanted to listen to music throughout the house. Even more so, I really disliked the Apple Music interface on my iPad and the music organization is horrible in comparison to Spotify.
With Amazon Music, while I could easily get lossless music throughout the house, especially using the new Sonos Voice Control, and I enjoyed the way it organized music compared to Apple Music, not too mention its music discovery was amazing, the functionality and experience of using the actual Amazon Music interface on my iPad was horrific to put it lightly. For example, liking music by using the thumbs up icon often didn’t add the music to your My Likes playlist, so you’d have to try to force it by adding it to the My Likes playlist as well.
All said and done, after letting these two platforms battle it out, I was the one being left exhausted and frustrated by both of them and I realized that I didn’t really like either of them that much. So with no where really left to go, I decided to try Spotify again. And without a doubt, the experience of using the platform is still leaps and bounds superior to other music platforms. Although I think it’s important to note that I did I enjoy Tidal Music’s interface and Tidal Connect but just not at the $20/month price point.
So what about the morality of using Spotify with Joe Rogan still on the platform? Well I’ve pretty much realized that all platforms today have morality issues with them, no matter who you go with now (i.e. both Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and even Apple’s Tim Cook both are having issues with their worker’s rights). So no one’s really an angel anymore.
All said and done though, I’m back with Spotify now and enjoying the simplicity of it again, with things just working as they should…but yes I do miss the lossless quality of other platforms. However, with Spotify hopefully introducing its HiFi plan in the near future and with all music platforms starting to increase the cost of their plans, perhaps the comparisons I’ll be doing in the future between different platforms will look completely different.
I wouldn’t doubt that I may just be looking at a comparison between just Spotify and Tidal Music around the $20/month price point in the near future. But then again, if prices of music platforms get that high for all platforms, we may see a resurgence in people ripping their own lossless music from CDs again or even buying lossless / hi-res music directly from artists, rather than paying these higher streaming prices. The issue with this though is that music with Dolby Atmos isn’t available to purchase yet. It’s only available from streaming platforms. Hopefully this will change in the future as well.
Finally one thing to point out. As I’m predominantly on Apple’s ecosystem and devices, if there is a dramatic improvement and upgrade to both the audio quality of AirPlay, making it fully hi-res rather than just lossless, and it’s functionality in the near future, this also may sway me back to Apple Music again. But the downside is that I still really dislike the interface and library organization of Apple Music, so I’m not so sure.
Oh! One last thing that I forgot to mention! Both loudness normalization (which needs to be added for streaming smart speakers or the music platform itself as the music isn’t being cast from the app itself but from the speaker) and the ability to play and cast music anywhere from the music platforms app itself are important things that need to be addressed. For example, the Apple Music iOS app can’t cast music to a Google Chrome device and thus you can’t control that music from the Apple Music app itself. With the Matter smart home standard finally being introduced, I’m still wondering where streaming music fits into this all. Will Matter introduce a unified streaming music protocol like AirPlay that will unify everything, letting any music platform app play music on any device, regardless of the digital ecosystem is originated within? I hope so. But I haven’t seen anything talking about this yet.
Update on Amazon Music: I also forgot to mention that Amazon Music “appears” to be working on an update of the app that I somehow got a sneak peak to while using it a week or two back (but then lost access to it when I had to reinstall the app). Besides allowing you to cast to Google Chrome devices (which is now live but somewhat buggy), it appears that they are testing out a new system for tracking songs that you like using a heart icon and functionality similar to Spotify. This works way better than the default thumbs up system that the system currently has. If these updates get released in the next month or so, I will gladly switch back to Amazon Music, as it will allow me to have lossless / hi-res music again and a user interface that’s actually not completely frustrating to use.