Spotify vs. Apple Music

So… back in June Spotify released a new version of their Android software. At first glace, it didn’t look so bad – mostly a huge PODCASTS tab added to the “My Library” page. Which makes sense: Spotify is pushing podcasts hard because they don’t have to pay royalties when you listen to them like they do with music.

Come to find out, it was way worse than that.

A quick refresher: in Spotify when you “save” an album to your library, you’re basically just saving a link to the music files on Spotify’s servers, like a browser bookmark. And Spotify’s Android app used to have a “My Library” page which had tabs for “Artists”, “Albums” and “Songs”. So if you saved 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe album to your library, “10,000 Maniacs” would then appear under “Artists”, In My Tribe would appear under “Albums”, and the songs from that album would appear under “Songs”. If you deleted the album, those entries went away. Simple, yes?

Spotify also has a “follow artist” feature. When I first joined the service in 2015, following an artist was how you got notifications that they had released new music. But Spotify’s notification system never worked that well, so they removed most of it. But they kept the “follow artist” feature, which folks in the Spotify Community said was for “shaping” the music in Spotify’s playlists. If the artists in your Discover Weekly or Release Radar playlists weren’t to your liking, follow a bunch of your favorite artists, they said, and your playlists would get better. And that seemed to be true.

So – here’s what Spotify’s June update changed:

– The “Artists” tab now only shows artists you follow. So if you add 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe to your library now, 10,000 Maniacs no longer appears under “Artists” unless you specifically tapped the “Follow” (or “Heart” icon), too. It’s effectively as if your iTunes install from 2008 suddenly lost the ability to sort music by artist, as if artist information was completely gone. There are lots of people who had been with Spotify since the service rolled out here in 2008 who never used the “follow” feature… and they were pissed that Spotify, without telling anyone or giving any advance notice, emptied their “Artists” lists. These poor folks had to recreate their “Artists” lists by hand. It took some people days.

– The “Albums” tab still works as expected, but for reasons only God and Spotify’s developers know, they removed the alphabetical scroll bar. It used to be, if you wanted to listen to U2’s Zooropa, you’d tap “My Library”, “Albums” and “Z” to get pretty close. Now you have to scroll all the way down manually, like a medieval French peasant!

– It also used to be possible to save only some tracks from an album. So if you liked the sound of The Cars’ remastered Candy-O album but didn’t want all the demos and outtakes that come on that version, you could save just the album tracks but not the outtakes. No more – it’s all or nothing now.

– The “Songs” tab went away entirely, replaced by a “Liked Songs” playlist with all the songs from your old “Songs” tab, but now in totally random order! And since the songs are now in random order there’s no use for an alphabetical scroll bar, so they got rid of that, too. So instead of tapping “W” to get to Roxy Music’s “While My Heart is Still Beating” I now have to scroll through 3,719 songs listed in random order until I find it. Terrific!

– They also moved the “Recently Played” list from the My Library page to the Home page, and they removed all actions from it aside from “open”. It used to be that you could tap on an album or playlist in Recently Played and several options would appear: “Remove from this list” was great for hiding any trace of your secret Def Leppard obsession, “Queue” or whatever. By moving and neutering it, Spotify effectively got rid of a feature that tons of people used.

*     *     *

Needless to say, many users were pissed about all this. I was pissed enough to give Apple Music a try.

So… signing up for Apple Music seemed simple enough. But then I installed and opened the latest version of iTunes on my laptop… and now what? Spotify is a stand-alone app. You open it, and there’s Spotify. Apple Music is… buried somewhere in iTunes? Even though I was signed in to iTunes with the correct account there were no “Hey, we see you signed up for Apple Music! Here’s how it works in iTunes for Windows” prompt. Nothing. It took a few clicks, but I found it. And when I did, the selection was as expected. I looked through several of my more “problematic” artists, and Apple Music seemed to have the same library holes Spotify does: early Saint Etienne and Dramarama albums were missing from Apple Music, too.

So here’s what I like about Apple Music:

For one thing, they readily accept gift cards and you can sign up for a year in advance. For reasons that aren’t important here, I would prefer to pay $119.88/year once than $9.99/month twelve times a year. And you can do that with Apple Music – 1 year costs $99, so I could use a credit card or buy a $100 iTunes card from my favorite brick & mortar store. Spotify, in contrast, only allows you to use gift cards with vanilla Premium accounts only; they don’t work on Family accounts, or even the Spotify + free Hulu accounts that happened earlier this year. I don’t know why Spotify is such a pain in the ass about it, but Apple is chill in comparison.

For another, Apple’s Android app seems snappier than Spotify’s. But that should come with a giant asterisk: it may well be that Spotify is slower than Apple Music. But it’s also well-known that Spotify often “slows down” if you: a) download a lot of offline music; and b) keep it on your device for a long time. In many cases, you can delete cache and delete data, then download all your music again, and Spotify will be much faster. And if that doesn’t help, you can try deleting cache and data again, then delete your device from your account. For all I know, Apple Music may slow to a crawl after downloading 12 GB of music and using it for six months as much as I use Spotify. What I’m saying is, Apple Music appears to be faster on my phone, but I’m not willing to scrap 12 GB of Spotify downloads to try an apples-to-apples test.

Another thing I like about Apple Music is that it allows you to queue playlists! Let’s say you’re about to do some grimy chore, like scooping a litter box or scrubbing a toilet. You’d like to listen to your “Doin’ Chores” playlist… but you also want to listen to a random song before that. With Apple Music you just start playing the song, then tap the playlist you want and choose “Play Next”. Spotify doesn’t have this basic functionality; you’d have to listen to the first song, then open your phone (with gross hands!) and manually tap the playlist to start playing that. What makes this especially inexplicable is that Spotify will allow you to queue albums in this way… just not playlists or stations.

One other cool thing about Apple Music is that it remembers every song you listen to in a session. Let me explain: you’re listening to a playlist when you decide that you’d like to listen to a different song next. No problem: just find the song you wanna hear, and in Apple Music choose “Play Next”; in Spotify choose “Add to Queue”. Only problem is, once that song’s finished playing, Spotify forgets that you played it. If you press the BACK button, it plays the last song in the album\playlist, not the random track you injected into the playlist. If you want to hear that random track again, you have to add it to your queue and skip ahead to the next track (and then skip back to the previous track ‘cos you had to skip it to get to the queued track). With Apple Music, you just have to tap the BACK button once.

Lastly, Apple Music lets you search via lyrics. You can type “Been there done that messed around, I’m having fun don’t put me down” in the search box and it’ll say “oh, you must be looking for ‘Bulletproof’ by La Roux!” This really isn’t a feature I’d use, but I’ve seen people ask for it on Spotify’s message boards and seen the dismissive “that’s a stupid idea” replies from Spotify’s developers. I really just wanted to mention that as an example of Spotify dictating what features it’ll have, rather than, you know, actually listening to users.

So what DON’T I like about Apple Music?

Well, for one thing, I had a hell of a time getting custom playlist thumbnails to work on the Android client:

Apple Music Playlists
(Click to enlarge)

Notice the picture on the “SE SL” (“Saint Etienne Set List”) playlist is off-center, and that the “Chromatics Road Trip” pic appears to be corrupted. I could find nothing in Apple Music’s settings that let me center the Saint Etienne thumbnail, and although the Chromatics thumbnail looked fine in iTunes on my laptop, it was always corrupted on my phone. So I tried deleting the image. My laptop returned to the default “4 album cover” image, but my phone retained the corrupt image. So I tried a different image… that looked fine on my laptop, but did not change on my phone. Deleting the app cache didn’t help, but deleting the data did. Which is a giant pain in the ass. And even then, the new image was again off-center:

Apple Music Playlists 2a
(click to enlarge)


Apple Music Playlists 2
(click to enlarge)

Notice that Apple Music has corrupted the cover art for the Charly Bliss’ Young Enough album and is displaying the wrong cover art for the “Swedish Summer” and “Bleu cobalt” tracks (the art should look like this and this, respectively).

I’m harping on this because I’ve never had a moment’s trouble with the same simple feature on Spotify:

Spotify Playlists 1
(click to enlarge)


Spotify Playlists 2
(click to enlarge)

But let’s talk about Apple Music’s worst feature: recommendations. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in /r/Spotify, and, truth be told, there are many people there who’ve switched back and forth between Spotify and Apple Music for assorted reasons. And the general consensus is that Spotify does a much better job hooking you up with music you might actually like. But I had no idea how far behind Apple Music was until I tried it myself:

Because you listen to CHVRCHES, we think you’ll love:

Seals and Crofts
Corrosion of Conformity
Florida Georgia Line
José Feliciano

WTF? OK, I’m exaggerating for effect, but even after using Apple Music full-time for 3+ weeks my recommendations were little better than when I started… and they weren’t remotely close to begin with.

If I may digress for a moment… am I the only one who hates music services that ask you to “pick a genre to get started”? As you’ve may have figured out by now, most of my favorite acts are Northern European synthpop and dreampop bands. But “Northern European synthpop and dreampop” is rarely a category on Apple Music or Pandora… so I choose “Indie Pop” and get New Politics… or I pick “Indie Rock” and get The Killers (‘cos it’s still 2005 at Apple HQ, I guess)… or I pick “Electronic and Dance” and get Armin van Buuren, who was never, ever cool. And that’s just me: Wiki lists 24 distinct types of trance, and I know “hip hop” has a hundred subgenres. “Hip hop” all by itself ain’t gonna cut it, Apple. Even services that offer decade choices miss the mark: my version of “80s” is Depeche Mode and The Cure,  not Tina Turner and John Mellencamp.

I also not a fan of how Apple hides some options and functionality on desktop iTunes. You want to enable iCloud Music Library? Well you can only do that from a PC (which makes sense at first, since that’s where the files probably are). But to find this lil’ tidbit of info, you have to dig through 5 help files, then find the option in iTunes… which, it goes without saying, is just a hideous piece of software. “Nothing could ever be worse than Lotus Notes!” I said to myself in 1998. How wrong I was!

Also, the iCloud Music Library seems (and is) a much nicer option than Spotify’s ugly, half-ass “we don’t do cloud storage, but you can enable Play Local Files and add a local file to a playlist, and it will be copied to your device if you’re on the same Wi-Fi network” hack. But this has become less of an issue for me over the years. Yes, it would be nice if Spotify offered cloud storage like Apple and Google… but with a 128GB microSD card in my phone, I can easily just copy the “top 300 songs Spotify doesn’t have that I’m likely to want to listen to at some point or another” and be done with it. I mean, I’ve already copying local music from my PC to my phone – music I can’t live without if Spotify goes down. Why not add a couple hundred oddball tracks on top of that?

On top of all this, you have the “intangibles”. Maybe Apple Music works great with the overpriced speakers Apple sells, and if you want to hold yourself hostage to be a happy member of Apple’s not-at-all oppressive ecosystem, then that might work out for you. But me? I’m not willing to give up Spotify’s integration with Android – as an alarm clock, as button on Google Maps – just yet. And Spotify works in all kinds of places – my Android phone, my Android TV box, my Roku TV & Roku sticks and my Fire TV sticks. What’s more, Spotify scrobbles server-side, so your listening habits are always sent to, regardless of which platform you use. Apple Music is scrobbable – on Android and Windows, at least – but it requires third-party software, which doesn’t work on Roku and Fire TV devices (not that it matters so much at the moment, since there’s no official Apple Music app for Roku or Fire TV, and the workarounds for this are kind of clunky).

So, at this point, I’m gonna stick with Spotify… although I’m not entirely happy about it. Aside from allowing annual subscriptions and\or gift cards, Apple just doesn’t offer any major advantage over Spotify, and in a lot of ways still feels rough around the edges, even though it’s been around for 4 years. It’s almost shocking how often the answer is “no” if you ask “does Apple Music work with [some hardware or software product NOT made by Apple]”. If I owned an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and a HomePod I’d probably have a different opinion. But I don’t, so I don’t.

One Reply to “Spotify vs. Apple Music”

  1. 3 points

    1) having used both Notes and iTunes much more recently than 1998, iTunes is still *miles* better than Lotus Notes

    2) Even if you do live in the Apple ecosystem, Apple Music is sub par.

    3) much like Socialists or Democrats (but I repeat myself), Apples philosophy is that they know better than you what you want. Therefore the album thumbnail is not off-center, you’re just looking at it wrong.

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