After years of anxious anticipation, the hottest music streaming service in Europe, Spotify, has officially launched in the US. Spotify boasts that it will “change how you enjoy music.” And many in the media have already declared Spotify an [insert competitor’s name here]-killer. I thought I’d test out that theory. So I’ve put Spotify head-to-head with the two services that most closely resemble the offerings of Spotify (translation: they all have a free option): Pandora and Grooveshark. (Yes, I’ve heard of Rdio, MOG and Rhapsody, too. But we’re leaving those comparisons for another day.) Here, a quick guide to each of these services, and how they stand against one another.
When it comes to depth of library, Spotify is hard to beat. The company says its catalog already includes more than 15 million songs, and users can upload their own catalogs to the service as well. Pandora, by comparison, has somewhere around 800,000, as of February, when it launched its IPO. That number has likely increased in recent months, but we haven’t been able to find a more up-to-date, verifiable figure.
Grooveshark is a different beast entirely; since its catalog is made up of user-uploaded songs, it could potentially have an infinite number of available tracks. It also means many of the more obscure tracks and mixes show up on Grooveshark, but not on Spotify or Pandora. The downside to a user-generated catalog is that naming for songs artists and albums is highly inconsistent, and the quality of the tunes is all over the place. On top of that, there’s the potential illegality of Grooveshark as a whole. (Neither Spotify nor Pandora have such legal woes.) If we were judging simply on the number and variety of songs — a perfectly valid benchmark — Grooveshark would have it in the bag. But we’re not, so we have to give this one to the more tightly controlled Spotify, and its 15 million high-quality tracks.
Since the only real social feature to Pandora is the ability to connect with Facebook and see what your friends are listening to, we’re not even going to pretend they have a dog in this fight. So the social battle really comes down to Spotify and Grooveshark. In Spotify’s corner, users connect with each other via Twitter, Facebook and Windows Live Messenger. Spotify users can quickly, simply and easily share playlists with their friends through Facebook, Twitter, email and SMS text messages. And with an even deeper level of integration for Facebook, pretty much everything you do on Spotify can be seen by your friends, if you like. (We’ll get into this more later.) In short, Spotify has an extremely respectable set of social features, and by far the most polished functionality in this area.
That said, Grooveshark still has Spotify handily beat at this game. Users can connect with both Facebook and Google. Just right click on any song or playlist, and you can share it via email, Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon, Reddit, an embeddable widget, or just link to it in with an automatically generated URL. With Grooveshark’s newly-added Community feature, it’s easy to add friends, comment each other’s tracks and see other activities.
Discovering new music is one of the best, and most interesting, parts about fully-connected music streaming services. Both Spotify and Grooveshark show users the most popular songs on the site. And Spotify makes suggests for music you might like, but these are often way off the mark and seem to have nothing to do with what you actually listen to on a regular basis. (Sorry, Spotify, I actually hate Bruno Mars with the fire of a thousand suns.) Grooveshark’s Community and sharing features make discovering new music fairly easy, especially if you have some super in-the-know friends. The same goes for Spotify and its Facebook integration.
The hands-down winner in the music discovery category is Pandora. As you likely already know, Pandora doesn’t offer the ability to listen to exactly the song you want, when you want it. Instead, it allows you to create “stations” based on a particular song or artist. From there, songs are played automatically (like a regular radio station) that are tailored to suit your taste. This is made possible with the Music Genome Project — the heart of Pandora — which analyzes over 400 different attributes to every song in the Pandora catalog to help deliver music that you will like, without you having to know about it already. Spotify does offer a “radio mode,” but pales in comparison to Pandora.
As I mentioned before, all three services have a free option. In the world of music streaming, however, you get what you pay for.
Spotify gives non-paying customers the ability to listen to any song in the catalog for up to 20 hours per month, for the first six months. After that, they’ll only have 10 hours of listening time per month, and they can’t listen to a track more than 5 times. Free users are also limited to using the desktop client only, have no offline mode, nor a variety of other smaller features, and they are almost constantly bombarded with advertising. But other than that, it’s a damn good deal!
Grooveshark does quite a bit better in the pay-nothing category. Users can listen to whatever they want, whenever they want, for as long as they want, and still not have to pay a dime. They can even upload their entire iTunes library to the Grooveshark cloud for free. And since Grooveshark is a Web app, users can access the same service they use at home anywhere in the world. The primary downside to free Grooveshark is, as expected, a lot of obnoxious advertising.
Last is Pandora, which falls somewhere in the middle. The free version is ad-supported, so users have to deal with periodic interruption. And users are limited to a total of 40 hours per month of listening time. Still, they can access Pandora for free on their mobile device, which is something neither Grooveshark nor Spotify offer with their free service. But for me, that’s still not enough to push it to the top spot.
Once you commit to actually spending money on the music you listen to (crazy, I know), a whole world of opportunity presents itself. Spotify offers two levels of paid service: a $4.99 per month offering, which allows unlimited listening time, access to Spotify radio mode and completely removes all advertising from the service; the $9.99 per month offering gives you all that, plus enhanced sound quality, desktop offline mode, and the very awesome ability to play Spotify on your mobile device (both streaming over Wi-Fi or 3G, or downloading tracks straight to your device for offline mode). It is this last feature that gives Spotify the edge.
Grooveshark also has two tiers: $6 per month for Grooveshark Plus, which strips away all the ads, allows for customizable skins and other features, gives access to the Grooveshark desktop client, and makes it easier to get in touch with customer service if things go awry. For $9 per month, users are upgraded to Grooveshark Anywhere, which simply adds the ability to access Grooveshark on a mobile device — any enabled Blackberry, Nokia, or Palm handset. Grooveshark has an Android app, too, but it’s not available in the Marketplace due to legal complications. And there is no official iPhone app (it was also removed from the App Store), so iPhone users have to jailbreak if they want access to Grooveshark.
Pandora is the most straightforward, when it comes to a paid subscription: $36 per year for unlimited playtime, and no ads. While this is far cheaper than the other services, you don’t really get that much more for your $36. And because of the mobile and desktop offline modes offered to paid Spotify customers, I have to give that service the gold medal, even if it is the most expensive.
Grooveshark has the most options when it comes to platforms: the standard website access, a desktop client, and apps for the various mobile devices. Unfortunately, it also has the least polished user interface of all the services. Now, some of you may not care about this at all, especially since the functionality is still strong, despite how it looks. But for a lot of people, design can make all the difference in terms of how they feel about using the service.
Spotify comes in two flavors: desktop and mobile app. Both of these have absolutely beautiful UI, and work smoothly and easily. The desktop client works very much like iTunes, so most people should find using it intuitive and fairly straightforward. I also found the mobile app quite easy to use. And, as I mentioned above, the offline feature and ability to stream cleanly over 3G is really what gives Spotify its award-winning value, since listening to music on the go is essential.
Pandora also also comes in web, mobile and desktop varieties. All three versions work fine, and have elegant, easy-t0-use designs. It’s not really fair to compare Pandora’s UI to either Spotify or Grooveshark, however, since we know it’s about to get a major upgrade to something that appears to look strikingly similar to Spotify. So, realistically, we’ll just have to wait and see how that turns out, but there’s a good chance that the new Pandora will look good and work well.
Spotify took three out of six categories, more than either Grooveshark or Pandora, which makes it my winner in the streaming showdown. And I must admit, it really is all that the hype builds it up to be (and possibly more). That said, Grooveshark is a very, very close second. It doesn’t have the buffed UI or the Apple-approved iPhone app to make it popular with the mainstream crowd. But it has solid functionality, and a lot of sweet features. Pandora certainly seems like the loser in this whole bit, but that’s mainly because it serves a different purpose than the other two, which it does better than any other service: letting you listen to consistently good music, without having to either own the music already or do any of the time-consuming curation required of Spotify and Grooveshark — a major downside to both services.
Updated with additional information at 1:45pm EST.