After months of rumours and waiting, it is official: Apple is getting into the streaming music business and taking on Spotify. But can it succeed in making streaming profitable? And does it do anything that the competition does not? The fight card reads Apple Music vs Spotify, so whose banging beats are delivering the killer blow?
Spotify offers three major tiers of playback. Premium costs £9.99/month and will let you play any song on demand, in the highest quality, with no adverts. You can also download tracks and listen offline using any of Spotify's apps across desktop, mobile and tablet.
The "Desktop and Tablet" free tier lets you play any song on demand, but only in lower/normal quality, and occasionally you will be interrupted by adverts unless you cough up £4.99 a month for the "Unlimited" option.
If you're only using the "Mobile" free tier – that is to say, using the mobile app without paying, you can't pick your tracks so easily – you can only go as far as choosing an artist or a playlist and listening to them on shuffle.
Spotify also has a "Family" pricing plan, which will drop 50 per cent off of the price of a second premium subscription for a family member.
Apple Music meanwhile will have a few pricing tiers too: the first is free and gives you access to the curated "Beats 1" worldwide 24/7 radio station, giving you no control over what is played but instead treating your ears to cuts from DJs including former BBC tastemaker Zane Lowe. You'll also be able to listen to Apple's existing Apple Music radio stations (its Last.FM equivalent), with limited access to track skips.
The second matches Spotify's US price at $9.99/month (no UK pricing has been announced yet, but going by Spotify's pricing it's likely to be a like-for-like £9.99 monthly conversion). This gives you all of the above plus unlimited track skipping on Apple Music radio stations, as well as unlimited access to any track from the Apple Music library, which, as far as we can tell at the moment, is EVERYTHING available on iTunes currently. Which is more or less all music, ever. This will come with expert recommendations, and the option to save tracks for offline listening.
A $14.99/month service was also announced that allows up to five family members to be added as extra users on a persons account, streaming tracks simultaneously without penalty.
Spotify is available in the vast majority of countries in the Americas (sorry Venezuela) and the European Union – as well as a handful of other countries, including Australia and the Philippines. It's in good old Blighty, too.
As Apple Music launches it will initially be available in 100 countries, including the UK. And that's all you care about, right?
Both Spotify and Apple have licensed the catalogues of the three big record labels: Warner, Universal and Sony – so for the vast majority of music, both services will have the songs you need. Both claim to have 30 million tracks in their catalogues, so there's not much in it to separate them in this respect.
When it comes to smaller, independent labels, Spotify has certainly spent a lot of its time in the lead signing up smaller labels to expand its catalogue. It's got hipster cred (NOT forcing a U2 album on people helps).
Apple hasn't gone into the specifics with regards to the breadth of its streaming catalogue, but it implied that all iTunes' purchasable songs would be accessible with that 30 million track tally. So that should offer parity to Spotify's offering. There are few companies that have the spending power that Apple has, and so long as its royalty system is favourable, labels and artists could be drawn to offering exclusives through the new service. But that's just speculation at this point.
Spotify offers a wide range of editorially curated playlists on its browse section, covering a wide range of genres and new stuff. If you're into robots curating, then there's also Spotify Radio, which uses algorithms to play you tracks that you think you might like, based on one artist acting as the seed.
Apple meanwhile is putting a huge focus on the "human touch" its curated playlists will have, spending lots of time talking up its worldwide Beats 1 station. Earlier this year Apple hired Radio 1's Zane Lowe to add a trendy and well-connected edge to its selections. Lowe will head up the Los Angeles arm of Apple Music, while Ebro Darden will be in New York and Julie Adenuga in DJ from London.
Now the crucial question: Where can you actually play your music?
Spotify has apps available on desktop – both Mac and PC – and mobile, including iOS, Android, Windows and BlackBerry. It is even available on PS4, and can be used to provide background music for certain games.
More broadly, Spotify operates "Spotify Connect", which lets a number of gadgets tap into premium users' music collections. For example, Sonos speakers can be hooked up to Spotify without the need for a computer or phone to sit in the middle, meaning you can play all of your tracks on your expensive speaker system.
Apple Music – at least initially – is rather more limited, available only on iOS devices and on iTunes on desktop. It's coming to Android later this year, but that seems to be it for now – though in fairness that represents the large majority of mobile users. The difference will then come down to functionality – on iPhone or iPad, Siri can be used to search for tracks and albums by voice alone.
It'll be interesting to see if Apple developers bring anything analogous to Spotify Connect for Apple Music; the existing AirPlay specification may already fit this bill. We're fairly hopeful that there will be some hardware partnerships too; after all, the Beats brand does have all those blinging headphones.
Social can be a huge part of the Spotify experience: playlists can be shared among friends (or even publicly), and your account can be linked to Facebook and Twitter to share your listening there too. Spotify also allows artists to run their own account pages, sharing playlists they create themselves.
Apple Music matches Spotify's social chops, offering track and playlist sharing over Facebook, Twitter and email, as well as Apple's first-party messaging service. It will also offer an area called Connect, through which artists can "share lyrics, backstage photos, videos or even release their latest song directly to fans directly from their iPhone". Fans will be able to comment or like on anything an artist posts (though you'd imagine Apple will vet comments more vigorously than the wild west of, say, YouTube.)
There's not much in it really from a pure blow-by-blow stats-and-service breakdown perspective, so Spotify can breathe a little easy at least safe in the knowledge that Apple has made a solid, but not revolutionary, music service. Both have extensive catalogues, both appear to have comparable pricing and feature sets. Apple's celebrity DJs are fine to have, but many users will likely be happy to ignore them in favour or uninterrupted playback. Spotify's free, ad-funded tier remains the option of choice for musical cheapskates.
Where Apple could eventually swing it is with exclusives -- by coming pre-installed on devices, Apple Music will have a giant number of fans to tap into from day one, and artists will see the potential in that. UI and design preferences may also come into play -- will Apple's love for airy minimalism find favour over Spotify's dark hues, for instance? One thing's for certain; Apple's already got a dead music service in its digital graveyard called Ping, and it's not going to let failure strike twice. From here on out, Spotify will have to bring its A-game.