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Spotify vs. Apple Music in 2021

Here we are in mid-2021, as the global pandemic rages on, so do the music streaming wars. Here at Appleosophy, we have team members that have an affinity to both Spotify & Apple Music.

We’re going to take you through the lenses of two of our staff writers – one pro-Spotify, and one pro-Apple Music – to disseminate opinions to help you make your own decision.

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We’d like to make a note that we will be comparing the categories below with each platform’s respective macOS app, as well as iOS app, since they are significantly different on each OS.

Will’s Overall Pick Right Now: Spotify

I want to preface my part of the article by explaining that I have a premium subscription to Spotify, as well as an Apple Music account. That being said, I am always bouncing back and forth to see how the two stack up against each other on desktop and mobile.

Noah’s Overall Pick Right Now: Apple Music

I personally use Apple Music primarily on my iPhone and Echo Dot, but have had my fair share of experiences with Spotify (albeit mainly their free plan). For streaming on my laptop or with my IEMs/headphones, I usually use Qobuz for lossless audio.

UI

Desktop:

Will: With the recent revamp of their desktop UI, Spotify has brought a few things to their platform that I really like. The main one is album artwork within the playlist view – something Apple Music added a while back, admittedly.

Visual cues are important to me as a Grapheme-color synesthete, so anything that enhances them is welcome! One thing that I do wish Spotify would add is a light mode version, as the dark mode is sometimes a sore thumb compared to the rest of the OS (I flip back and forth depending on the time of day). The other thing I wish they would bring back is the popularity meter on albums. Once again, something at least Apple Music has a slight advantage on, albeit just showing a star next to popular songs on an album.

Noah: There is nearly nothing positive about the experience of using Apple Music on desktop. I personally use iTunes for Windows but have heard that it is as bad, if not worse on macOS. It’s slow, unresponsive, buggy and frequently causes my computer to slow down. It genuinely takes about 3 seconds to respond to each interaction with the program and it is incredibly frustrating. I’ve had to result to using online alternatives such as Musi and feverTunes for casual listening outside of the house and on my laptop, just so Apple Music is actually usable. Apple does have a web app which is marginally better than iTunes, but I believe it is limited to 128kbps, rather than the full 256kbps which come from streaming through iTunes or one of the other aforementioned alternatives.

It’s a boring UI, but it lets you do most of what you want. One of the benefits is the great integration between your local library and your Apple Music library, using “iCloud Library”. I can stick on a couple of albums that I’ve got stored locally that aren’t available on Apple Music, and they’ll upload, sync over to my phone, and be perfectly integrated with the rest of my music library. (Unfortunately FLAC files are not supported, but you can convert files to ALAC without losing any data if you want native playback). Smart playlists are pretty clever with lots of room for customisation: also syncing over to iOS, and there’s support for playlist folders (which again do show up on iPhone). You can rate songs based on star ratings, and like and dislike from the app. Just a shame all of this takes way, way longer than it needs to.

iOS:

Will: I feel the two services are much more on par UI and feature-wise as opposed to desktop. When it comes down to UI on iOS, it mainly comes down to subtle differences. Things like how the gradients respond, typeface choices, and player button design are all nuanced, but noticeable to someone who cares.

However, the big difference to me here is having the ability to tell Spotify that I “Like” a song straight from the Now Playing screen. And that brings me to another big difference between the two: the behavior of liking / loving a song. In Spotify, the default behavior when one likes a song via the heart icon, it both tells Spotify “play more like this” as well as “add this to my library.” On Apple Music, these are not only two separate actions, but also is 3-4 extra taps on the screen to accomplish the same outcome.

Noah: I am a big fan of the Apple Music UI. The gradients are sometimes subtle but always classy, and the fonts and symbols just look really good. Here’s an example:

I prefer Apple Music’s library-oriented approach, as I mainly play specific albums or songs rather than from playlists. Having songs organised as if they’re local files is nice and reassuring, and it’s just my preferred method of collating music I like. Browsing this is really easy, and I’ve never had any issues. Another huge benefit of Apple Music (at least for me) is the ability to see time-synced lyrics. Not only is the interface gorgeous –

– but especially for some of the music I listen to, it really helps with understanding the lyrics of a song, and does genuinely enhance the experience, especially if you’re a karaoke kind of person.

What I do miss about Spotify is the lack of an alternative to Spotify Connect. Especially with Alexa’s subpar music browsing, the ability to find an album or playlist on my phone and cast it straight to my Echo Dot over Wi-Fi is honestly super useful. The same goes for Sonos, although it’s not as much of an issue (especially if you have Airplay 2 compatible speakers).

Wishes for macOS 12 & iOS 15:

Will: My wish for macOS 12 is easy for Apple Music: burn the skeleton that iTunes has very apparently left behind in both UI & janky behavior and build a brand new native app from the ground up that mimics functionality and design found in iOS. It’s honestly that simple to me.

Spotify has already revamped their experience for desktop, so I don’t have any big wishes at this point other than the aforementioned ones.

For iOS, I hope that whatever they decide to do/add/change to macOS’ version of the Music app, they do so in tandem with iOS. I would like full, clear feature parity between the two. I hope that a lot of what happens is that macOS [continues to] takes cues from iOS UI and functionality-wise because Apple is hitting a lot of nails on the head with iOS. In addition, I hope that there is more customization on what to display on the Now Playing screen, as well as for behaviors.

Once again, in this case, Spotify has also revamped the mobile UI fairly recently (albeit before the desktop version), so there’s not a lot for me to comment on at this time.

Noah: I’m with Will here. Kill iTunes. That’s it. Ever since July of 2020, rumours have been circulating about a new standalone Apple Music Windows application, but there’s been no luck so far. In a revamped or entirely rewritten app, library management needs to stay as easy and useful as it is already(!). This is one of the killer features of Apple Music. The same goes for all of those little useful features that are hanging around from the days of yore. I’m hoping profusely that this won’t be the case, but I’m also incredibly apprehensive about the decisions they might make.

Discoverability

Will: This category is the primary reason that I keep being drawn back in to Spotify. There is absolutely no question, in my experience, that Spotify consistently and accurately serves up fresh new tracks that I am going to find appealing. Spotify is heavily playlist-based, and less library-based than Apple Music. That being said, I do personally believe that with its new UI, one can get more of a library experience than they have in past iterations.

Regardless, though, Spotify’s always-updating personalized playlists are phenomenal. Not only do I look forward to Discover Weekly every Monday, and Release Radar every Friday, as of last month, Spotify has added new “Spotify Mixes” to take things even further with constant discovery. In fact, I cleverly concocted a multi-Spotify-generated playlist folder so that I can have one stop to click play and let awesome new music flow into my earholes:

Unfortunately, this little trick only works on desktop.

Let’s talk Apple Music in contrast as it pertains to discovering music. Now, they have tried with their “Made for You” playlists, but I do not believe they have stuck the landing. I am constantly presented with two categories: songs I actually don’t really care for, and songs I already know.

None of the playlists mimic Discover Weekly. You might say “oh, well, actually, Will…” Yeah, no. The closest Made for You playlist to even try and get close to it is Favorites mix… and that’s just all songs I have already heard / added to my library. It seriously baffles me that after nearly 6 years, there is not one personalized playlist curated by Apple Music that allows me to discover previously-released (like, not this week) tracks that it thinks I might like. I have to rely on other, mainly genre-specific, curated playlists. Oftentimes, I only find one or two songs worth combing over.

And do not even get me started on playlist organization. Well, you can, but more on that a little later.

Noah: Will’s hit it on the mark here. Spotify consistently found new music that matched my music taste, and Apple Music’s recommendations are dire. I consistently like and dislike songs on AM, and my recommendations haven’t improved one bit. (Similarly, the only accurate playlist is the Favorites Mix, and that just serves up songs I’ve listened to so much that I’m sick of hearing them). Spotify definitely takes the cake here.

Wishes for macOS 12 & iOS 15:

Will: Apple Music: I have just one main request: please just make it easier for me to discover music. Make a “Discover Mix” playlist curated for me that is updated weekly with the majority of tracks I will actually enjoy. Also, please make the task of “Loving” and “Un-loving” tracks feel actually worth it by reflecting my tastes in other curated playlists.

Noah: Again, I’m with Will. Apple, step up your game with music algorithms. You’re surely capable of it. Also, when I hit the infinity “autoplay” button, don’t just play music that you think I’ll like, play music that matches the mood & genre of the music I’m already listening to. If I wanted any old songs, I’d just shuffle my library.

Pricing & Quality

Pricing for both of these services used to be fairly on par. Just recently, Spotify raised the prices of its student, duo and family plan in the UK, and just its family plan in the US. Technically, this means that in the US, Apple Music family is $1 cheaper, and in the UK, the family plan is £2 cheaper ($2.78). Spotify is rumored to be offering a higher-fidelity aimed at audiophiles at a higher price. Apple Music, at least at the time of this writing, is also rumored to add such an option, but perhaps without raising prices.

The pricing breakdown for both in the US is as follows:

  • Individual:
    • Spotify – $9.99/mth
    • Apple Music – $9.99/mth
  • Duo (2 accounts):
    • Spotify – $12.99/mth
    • Apple Music – N/A
  • Family (6 accounts):
    • Spotify – $15.99/mth
    • Apple Music – $14.99/mth
  • Student:
    • Spotify – $4.99/mth
    • Apple Music – $4.99/mth

There are 2 main categories that Spotify offers that Apple Music does not: a free, ad-supported tier, and a plan specifically made for couples (Duo, as mentioned earlier). Apple Music also offers an annual discount for individual plan holders, $99 upfront, saving a total of $21. It’s also worth noting that Spotify also includes a couple of extras in their student plan, including SHOWTIME and access to the ad-supported plan of Hulu.

Wishes for macOS 12 & iOS 15:

Will: Bring on the high-fidelity tracks, but please do not let cost suffer because of it.

Noah: If Apple Music does bring out Hi-Fi songs at no additional cost, this will be a big plus for me (especially given I use Qobuz as an extra subscription to listen to lossless music). They have the opportunity to undercut Spotify, although I do actually find it much more likely that, rather than lossless songs, this will only be surround sound to be used with AirPods Pro etc. However, I believe that Apple does have the lossless source files from its Digital Master program, so it should be fairly easy to update songs with their original quality masters.

It’s also likely that, despite the increased cost, Spotify Hi-Fi will be pretty popular. After the fiasco with Tidal & MQA (linked is a brilliant video by GoldenSound if you’re interested), many have cancelled their Tidal subscriptions in favour of services offering plain, unaltered FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) streaming. On platforms like Qobuz, search and discoverability usually suck, so for everyone that enjoys using Spotify for their recommendations and wants to keep their listening history and playlists, it’ll be a great compromise between audio quality and UX.

Organization

Desktop:

Will: Apple Music makes me want to scream at my screen a lot of the time when trying to organize music on the desktop app. As a longtime user of Apple’s products and software, I know that most of my qualms stem from the underpinnings of migrating iTunes to piecemeal what is now Music.app, hence my earlier griping.

But, one thing grinds my gears more than anything else.

It may seem insignificant to you – and perhaps you have never even noticed this, but please, please, please let me organize curated playlists in folders! It boggles my mind that this is not a thing you can do so far into Apple Music’s lifespan. I will give them kudos for recently adding (I believe in 11.3) the “All Playlists” view, however.

Noah: I don’t really have any organization issues in the desktop app. My own playlists are fine in folders and I don’t really find myself pining for curated playlists in folders (sorry Will). Lots of sorting options, and as mentioned before, Smart Playlists are extremely customisable.

iOS:

Will: I don’t really have a lot of issues as it pertains to mobile organization. I feel like it’s always been good in Music.app for Apple Music on iOS. I have not ever had an issue with iCloud syncing anything over that I can recall. Spotify has also always done a good job of keeping organization in sync with their desktop app.

Noah: Same here mainly. The biggest issue I have in Apple Music is not being able to make playlist folders or move playlists between or into folders (although this can be done through a bit of a workaround: go into the folder you want the playlist to be in -> make a new playlist -> add the old playlist to the new playlist -> delete the old playlist. Just a little harder than it needs to be). I’ve also heard some complain about the lack of sorting options within playlists but it’s never been an issue for me. One more thing: although it’s never happened to me, I’ve heard of songs or albums being removed or their metadata edited on the service, causing them to disappear from your library or playlists silently. There is an app to counteract this, but a notification of some sort would be preferable.

Something super cool about iOS though is the Apple Music app’s integration with Shortcuts, and what this functionality allows you to do. Personally, I mainly use Shortcuts to quickly create playlists from the Today View to be used as queues for my Echo Dot in my room, such as shuffling existing playlists or shuffling my library (shuffle is seemingly broken with Alexa).

If you truly invest some time and effort however, there’s a bunch more you can do. Create playlists based on star ratings (done in iTunes), mix moods & genres, and so much more. If this piques your interest, check out this excellent post by u/owenstarr on Reddit.

Finally, I can download music to my Apple Watch from Apple Music for offline streaming. I have a 16GB model, so currently have my entire library loaded in. For times when I’m without my phone it’s been super useful, especially during a run, for example, where I just take my watch for activity tracking and Bluetooth earphones for music.

Wishes for macOS 12 & iOS 15:

Will: Overall, if the ability to put curated playlist in folders functionality was added, it would certainly ease some of the burden of discovery that I have had with Apple Music, and believe it or not, begin to open the door for other positive experiences with the app.

Noah: Playlist folder creation and management, as well as sorting options for playlists. That’s it.

Final Thoughts

Noah: Despite all my complaints, I do like Apple Music. Every time I open the app, or stream music from my Apple Watch, or watch the lyrics as I listen to my music, I’m reminded of just how much I enjoy it! I’m confident that I made the right decision for me, but, for many others, Spotify is and will be the superior choice, especially when it comes to its algorithms and recommendations.

Will: In effort to be a resource to my friends, family, and the dear readers of Appleosophy,  I frequently check in with both music services. I will continue to do so until one gets so good that I no longer feel the pull to do so (doubtful that will be anytime soon, but you never know!). At the end of the day, I am rooting for Apple Music, as someone strongly embedded in the Apple ecosystem. It is just not quite there yet with my personal desires for what a music streaming platform should have when compared to others out there – namely Spotify.

We’ll see early next month what WWDC has in store for us and Apple Music in 2021.

Until then, though, I am crossing all my fingers and toes.

Which music platform is your platform of choice? Weigh in below.

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