feature This time last year, there were exactly zero music subscription services available in Australia. Zilch. Nada. Niente. We’d certainly flirted with them in the past. There was the Nokia ‘Comes with Music’ service that was tied to a couple of Nokia smartphones – still available, actually, if you’ve managed to hold onto those phones. Vodafone dabbled in the area as well a few years back MusicStation – a subscriber-only service that then quietly disappeared without so much as a cake and farewell party.
But things have ramped up in the past couple of months surprisingly quickly, and we now have no less than five music subscription services available. Sony was the first on the scene with not one but two services launched back in February: its mainstream Music Unlimited service, and the Anubis.fm service designed specifically for the Sonos music system. Samsung jumped on the bandwagon in October with the Samsung Music Hub, BlackBerry followed suit with BBM Music in early November, and the long-awaited Zune Pass from Microsoft mid-November. Anubis.fm has also since been renamed to Songl, had its ownership transferred to both Sony Music and Universal Music, and is now available on a variety of devices, not just Sonos music systems.
The big brother of music streaming services, Spotify, hasn’t launched yet in Australia, but the company is ramping up its Australian staff, and we expect it to make an announcement about an Australian launch shortly. We’ll take a look at Spotify when it launches.
The nitty gritty
Music streaming: it’s all pretty much the same, right? Not so fast. The services that each company has set up are all different, between the number of tracks available, the devices that you can access them on, pricing models and what you can do with the music once you’ve got it. There’s no simple answer as to which service is the best – it will largely depend on whether you own devices that are compatible with the service and where you do the majority of your music listening.
All of the services include music from the big four music labels (Sony Music, Universal Music, Warner Music, and EMI Music) as well as independent labels, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find exactly the same tracks in each service. Microsoft’s Zune Pass is ahead on that count with 13 million tracks, followed by Music Unlimited and BBM Music with 10 million tracks, Songl with four million tracks, and Samsung Music Hub with three million tracks.
A straightforward all-you-can-eat model is the most popular method, employed by Music Unlimited, Samsung Music Hub, Zune Pass and Songl, each of which also offers cloud-based access, mobile apps, and the ability to use the service on specific home entertainment devices. Zune Pass is a little different in that you download tracks to play when using the Zune Music Player desktop software or a Windows Phone rather than streaming them, although the Xbox 360 and web clients use the conventional streaming method.
BBM Music is more different still. Instead of the musical buffet that other services offer, BBM Music limits you to 50 songs only. A miniscule portion compared to the millions of tracks you can access on the other services, but the trick is that you can access all the music that your BBM Music friends have selected as well. This puts a social spin on the music streaming model by letting you share only your favourite tunes, and it’s an innovative way of discovering new music. Rather than just dump you at the front page and let you pick and choose your music – a method that usually results in you listening to the same tracks you’re already familiar with – it basically forces you to sample the music that other users have recommended, turning the entire community into de facto music curators – and potentially broadening your musical horizons in the process.
Music Unlimited offers the broadest access, letting you stream music from any Android smartphone or tablet, a desktop browser, the PlayStation 3, and any of Sony’s Internet-connected home entertainment devices such as TVs, Blu-ray players and home theatre systems. Songl is the dark horse in second place, supporting iPhone and Android phones, as well as the Sonos music system and desktop web browsers. Zune Pass follows close behind, with access through the Xbox 360, Windows Phones, Windows computers and desktop web browsers. Samsung Music Hub is currently available to Galaxy smartphones and tablets only, although mid-December will see it launch on desktop web browsers and Samsung Internet-connected home entertainment devices as well. BBM Music comes in dead last with access only available on BlackBerry smartphones.
So how much can you expect to pay for all of this audio goodness? Music Unlimited offers a two tiered system: the basic membership for $4.99 a month lets you stream music by ‘channels’ (categorised by genre, era and mood), while the the premium $12.99 a month membership lets you pick and choose everything you play. Samsung Music Hub and Songl offer tiered approaches as well, although these are based on device. For Samsung Music Hub, $9.99 a month (also available at $54.99 for six months and $99.99 for a year) lets you access the service on one Galaxy smartphone or tablet, and $14.99 a month (also available at $79.99 for six months and $149.99 for a year) lets you access it on four Samsung compatible products and a web browser.
Songl offers a basic membership for $8.99 a month that lets you stream from a desktop browser, and a premium membership for $12.99 a month adds streaming to iPhone, Android and Sonos, along with enhanced features like streaming at 320kbps and off-line caching. Zune Pass and BBM Music offer a simpler approaches of a single monthly fee at $11.99 (or $119.90 a year) and $5.99 a month respectively.
We’ve got to hand it to RIM for coming up with a service that’s completely different to anyone else’s. Whether this makes it any more appealing is the question. BBM Music has two strikes against it: the amount of music you can access is far more limited; and access is restricted to BlackBerry users only. But neither of these shortcomings are as bad as they first appear. As the success of the Apple iPod Shuffle has proven, sometimes having less access to music actually improves the experience, as you aren’t constantly hunting through available tracks to find something to play, and can therefore spend more time playing and appreciating the music you do have.
The fact that you can play all of the music that your friends have added as well provides an easy way to discover new and recommended music. We found that having to select only 50 tracks – a process we actually enjoyed – resulted in a brilliant playlist that we were more than happy to play on a daily basis. Plus, you’re able to swap out up to 25 tracks each month.
The restriction to BlackBerrys only is a double-edged sword: it means you can only listen to your music on your BlackBerry (no web or home entertainment device access) and it also means that if you don’t know many other BlackBerry users, your options for expanding your music library are limited. But the latter doesn’t necessarily prevent you from adding lots of contacts. If you know at least one other person using it (the big if!), you can then add all of their contacts – they just may not be people you know (nor is there any way to see their music before adding them). What you’ll find, as we did, is that you really only need to add one or two contacts before other people find you and start adding you, and you can end up with dozens of BBM Music requests with very little effort.
The BBM Music app is basic but straightforward, with tabs along the tab for moving between the different sections. It offers most of the features you’d want in a music service like playlists (you can include tracks from contacts), off-line access, and the ability to see recommendations based on what you’re currently playing. For BlackBerry users, there are certainly worse ways to spend $5.99 a month, and it’s not as though you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to compatible music services anyway. At the very least, it’s worth checking out the free 30-day trial.
There’s a good chance that most of your music listening is done on a mobile device, and if it happens to be a Samsung Galaxy smartphone or tablet, then you’ve got the privilege of having access to the cheapest unlimited music streaming service for mobile devices at $9.99 a month (with discounts for 6- and 12-month subscriptions). This is a single-device license only (a premium subscription for more devices is available), but if you’ve got a high-end Galaxy smartphone or tablet, you can take advantage of the HDMI output to play music through a HDTV anyway.
The Music Hub app is easy enough to use, with tabs across the top for navigation and a handy “Discover” section where you can browse through top 40 tracks and albums, new releases, popular artists, genres, and collections (a selection of pre-made playlists). But there are a few quirks in the app’s design that prevent it from being user-friendly. For starters, you can’t just play any song that you find – you have to add it to a playlist first. Nor do you get a choice as to which playlist the song is added to or get an option to create a new playlist on the fly – it’ll automatically add it to whatever playlist is currently loaded.
This means that if you want to play a song but not add it to the default playlist (for reasons we’ll get to in a sec), you’ll first need to go to the Playlists tab, create a new playlist, then load that playlist, navigate back to the song, and tap the add button – and then you can finally play it. The reason you wouldn’t want to add it to the default playlist is because it’s the only one that you can’t cache for off-line listening – any other playlists you create offer the option of syncing the playlist to your device, with up to 500 tracks supported.
The other strange thing about Music Hub is that it doesn’t have a Now Playing screen. Instead, there’s a prevalent music playback bar at the bottom of the screen, and a little arrow that you can tap on to navigate through thumbnails of all the other tracks in the playlist. Music discovery options are limited – there’s no ‘view similar artists’ option or even the ability to see other albums and tracks by the same artist. One feature we do like the option to create a mix from the ‘Popular Artists’ section; this builds a random 10-track sampler of music from that artist that you can then add to the currently loaded playlist (again, an option to create a new playlist here would’ve made more sense).
The app is a little buggy – we got a couple of force close errors while we were using it – but Samsung has already updated it three times since we first started using it a couple of months ago, so we’re confident that all the kinks will be worked out fairly soon. For ten dollars a month (for the basic membership), the service is good, but the app could be a lot better, and the catalogue is smaller than any of the others at only three million tracks.
It’s nowhere near as high profile as the offerings from other vendors, but Songl has the distinction of being the only Aussie unlimited music streaming service that’s currently available on the iPhone. Add to that it’s availability on Android as well as the Sonos music system and a desktop web browser, and you’ve got a service that’s accessible on a surprisingly large number of devices. If you don’t need mobile or Sonos access, Songl also offers the cheapest unlimited streaming service with its basic $8.99 membership that can be accessed from a desktop browser only.
Songl offers the most straightforward and easiest-to-use interface of all the services, eschewing flashy graphics for simple text-based lists. The only downside on both the mobile and Sonos clients is that the search function requires you to specify whether you’re searching for artists, albums or track names, and this makes searching harder than it needs to be. Say you’re looking for a particular track; instead of putting both the track name and artist name into the search field (which most of the other services let you do), the fastest avenue in Songl would be to search by artist.
A “Top Tracks” option is available for each artist that lists their top 100 tracks, but if the track you’re looking for isn’t there, you’ll then have to navigate by album, which is problematic if you don’t know which album the track is in and the artist has an extensive discography. But we do like the feature that shows you similar artists to the one you’ve searched for, and we like the fact that Songl will automatically play all the songs in the list of whatever you’re browsing through, whether it’s the top 100 tracks of a particular artist, a genre playlist or the Top Tracks from the main menu.
The Songl app on Android (we didn’t test the iOS version) has an annoying habit of automatically muting the speaker whenever we load a new playlist, but apart from that, it seemed a lot more stable than the other Android music players we tested. A cool feature in both the iOS and Android clients is the automatic off-line caching of tracks (up to 1000) once you’ve played the song for longer than 30 seconds, and the Android client has the added bonus of a manual caching feature. The Sonos interface has an extra feature as well by way of a Chart History category where you can browse through the top songs and albums by year as well as the number 1 tracks and albums on your birthday across the years.
The dated search mechanism is annoying, and the catalogue limited to four million tracks, but apart from that, Songl is a surprisingly polished service that’s really easy to use, offers lots of cool features, and has wide availability across mobile, desktop and home entertainment.
Zune Pass (pictured at the top of this article) is unique in a couple of ways. First, it’s the only service that lets you buy music tracks as well as stream them (although you’ll have to wrap your head around paying for things using Microsoft Points instead of a “real” currency). Second, it’s the only service where you download tracks completely on the Windows Phone and Zune Music Player clients rather than stream them (the Xbox 360 and web interface use the standard streaming model). But the biggest distinction it has from the other music services is that it has a beautiful user interface, particularly the Windows Phone and Xbox 360 clients, which feature stunning full-screen graphics of the artist in the Now Playing screen, as well as slick menu transitions when you’re navigating through the catalogue and your music library.
Just because it’s pretty, however, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy to use. The Zune Pass worked at first in the Zune Music Player in Windows, but overnight it started throwing up usage right errors whenever we tried to play anything. If you’re downloading music straight to a Windows Phone, the fact that you have to download music in a separate app (Marketplace) to the music player is another source for confusion, as is the seeming lack of any top 10 lists beyond the three top albums shown on the main music homescreen (the rest of the lists for top artists, songs, albums, playlists and new releases are rather bizarrely hidden away under ‘More’ in the Genres section).
The Windows Phone client offers the fewest features for Zune Pass – you can’t even create new playlists or edit existing ones that you’ve transferred from the Zune Music Player on the desktop. From the Zune Music Player, you can access genre playlists, “mixtapes” (a collection of music based on theme, genre, era or artist) and celebrity mixes (currently a little lonely here with only two available), while the web client displays most played artists, songs and albums that are oddly different (yet more believable) than the ones that are shown in the Windows Phone client.
It’s strange to say, but while we love the user interface of Zune Pass, the actual usability isn’t all that great, and the Windows Phone client in particular is lacking a few important features. The Xbox 360 interface is magnificent, but you’ll need an Xbox Live Gold membership in addition to the Zune Pass subscription before you can access it – an extra $79.95 per annum (or $10.95 a month) if you aren’t already a member.
Sony’s Music Unlimited service does many things right. From the Now Playing screen, you can easily jump to other albums by the same artist, browse to similar artists, and read a detailed artist biography (if one is available). There are also premium channels (included with the premium membership) for browsing through the global top 100, local top 100, and top 100 lists for particular genres, and a “you might like” recommendation engine based on tracks in your library.
The “Music Sync” feature is unique to Music Unlimited, and lets you replicate the songs you already have on your desktop to Music Unlimited. It’s PC-only, so we couldn’t test it, but assuming all your tracks are properly tagged, you could then make use of Music Unlimited’s excellent discovery features on your existing music library to find similar artists or tracks by the same artist – an easy way to find more music that you’re likely to enjoy. Music Unlimited is also the only service that does playlists properly; when adding a song to a playlist (although you don’t need to do this to play a track), it gives you the option to create a new playlist or add to an existing one – something that Samsung would do well to copy.
The user interface for the Android client is a little amateurish, however, and like the Music Hub app, we encountered a few force close errors while testing. It’s also a little slow to load music – even over a Wi-Fi connection, music can take up to 10 seconds to start streaming (the other services start streaming almost instantly), and it would frequently take a long time to load the album art and related artists. If you regularly encounter 3G deadspots or don’t want to use up all of your data allowance with music streaming, the lack of off-line caching is a big limitation as well.
The web user interface isn’t much prettier than the Android client, although it’s nowhere near as ugly as the TV interface that you get when accessing Music Unlimited from one of their compatible Blu-ray players. You’re better off loading up Music Unlimited through a desktop web browser and connecting it to the TV, as the Blu-ray interface is tortuously slow, doesn’t display lists of tracks, even when you’re viewing an album or playlist (you have to scrub through tracks one at a time), and it stops playing music whenever you leave the Now Playing screen.
So which music streaming service should you choose? It’ll depend on your specific technology setup, habits and how much you’re willing to spend for what you use. But the good thing is the market for music streaming services in Australia is getting increasingly crowded; meaning more options for users and more competition. With the eventual launch of Spotify on the cards down under and the existing options, Australians could shortly be spoiled for choice when it comes to streaming music options.
Image credit: Various