“I’m currently between streaming services…”

A few weeks ago, a Barclays ATM decided to eat my Irish bank card. While this was a little inconvenient, I had some cash to hand and was able to get by for the next few weeks. The chief hiccup was that my monthly Spotify payment was due the following day – and living in the UK but paying for Spotify with an Irish account meant I couldn’t get a replacement card in time to pay that month’s fee.

I didn’t see this as the end of the world – Spotify offers both a free and a premium payment service, so when the payment didn’t get to go through, I just got demoted to regular Spotify.

Unfortunately, as I primarily use Spotify’s mobile app when I’m walking to college or travelling somewhere, I learned that free Spotify is the worst thing.

I’ve given out about this before elsewhere, but here’s a quick rundown of the problems with free Spotify:

  • It’s always on shuffle. Most albums, at least in most genres and until fairly recently, have had the tracks placed in some kind of deliberate order, and always-on-shuffle renders that useless. It’s awful to listen to an album you know really well, and to have the familiar experience of track order disrupted. It’s even worse to listen to concept albums, where the order of the tracks is often important to the overall feel or narrative of the work, or for classical music, where you might end up with the triumphant finale being followed by the second movement.
  • The ads I don’t mind so much – I understand that they need to monetise the free version somehow – but again it’s very disruptive to have ads for mystery novels pop into my ear between hardcore punk tracks.
  • It forces suggestions onto you – I love discovering new music, but I do not love being forced to listen through a suggested track before being allowed to hear the music I’ve deliberately sought out. The only way to get around this is to skip the suggestion but then:
  • You only have a limited number of skips per day.

What galled me the most however was how, having been a paid subscriber to the premium service for six months, once I got bumped down to premium I could no longer access the music I had saved on my devices. Syncing tracks is not available to non-paying users, and so I couldn’t play tracks I had synced while paying. Again, I see the logic behind this, but it really bothers me that I now have files stored on my laptop and phone that I am locked out of using. What’s worse is that I can’t seem to delete them. Effectively, Spotify are holding a few gigabytes of hard drive space hostage until I cough up a subscription fee again.

As long as I chose playlists where order didn’t matter, I found I could live with these issues… until Spotify decided I had used my allotted 14 days of “spotify use while in a foreign country” (after only seven days on the free model). And so, I’ve been forced to use other platforms for music consumption for the past few weeks. Here are a few short reviews of the various websites and apps that I’ve tried.

8 tracks – I don’t know how the licensing for this works, but apparently it does. It’s a little disorienting when you’re listening to a playlist of female-fronted powerviolence, and for no obvious reason it decides to switch over to a playlist of American traditional pop – though Judy Garland grindcore would be tons of fun. Get on it, mashup people!
The site is built around the idea of listening to mixtapes created by other users. I use Spotify primarily because I can choose what to listen to and for that reason its constant suggestions and shuffling really bothered me on the free version, but this app felt different as it is entirely built around discovering music, in playlists determined by the website’s users. Perhaps the “discover” function on Spotify is just as good, and of course Spotify also hosts user-created playlists, but I recommend this app highly because it’s ad-free, has some more obscure acts, and Spotify can make it quite hard to find good user-created playlists. Its licensing also limits the number of skips allowed per day, but somehow this is less annoying than the same feature on Spotify – perhaps because on Spotify you can see the full playlist and may want to skip ahead to a specific track, but on 8tracks you can’t see the names of the tracks until they are played.

Soundcloud is a great way to follow labels specifically. Some bands and lots of independent artists have a good deal of material here, including my Botswanan faves Wrust, and a number of comedy podcasts or radio-style productions make use of the site too. (I have one of course). The app is solid, with a good interface and without some of the more annoying problems on the website version (I use my  space bar to scroll, not to pause/play music, goddamn it). There’s no real way to control what content comes up – you either work through a chronological feed of everything uploaded by the pages you follow or play through a single page’s music – but if you follow the right people then you can get a good variety of great music. Working through the feed can be a disorienting experience when Systematic Extinction by Serpentine Path starts playing immediately after a set of new choral works by New Dublin Voices and the Irish Composers’ Collective, but it’s all part of the fun.

Bandcamp has a great website, where many artists have their music available for free streaming or for download (often with a “name your price” system), but the app requires a fan account to work properly. Setting up a fan account requires you to make at least one purchase, which must either be through PayPal or involve setting up a PayPal account as well. Apart from this slight initial barrier, it’s a great service. It allows you to follow artists’ and labels’ pages, but also other fan profiles, which is a nice balance between choosing your own content and receiving recommendations from people whose taste you trust. The mobile app will only stream music you have paid for; if you download a name your price album for free, it won’t be available for streaming. For this reason it’s only really any good for users who are willing to spend money to get music, but many Bandcamp artists won’t be found on Spotify or other streaming services.

Grooveshark is an excellent website – again I can’t see how on Earth it’s legal but apparently it is. Of the two apps available for Android however, one I didn’t use because it requires an account and the other is just terrible, both in terms of interface and playback. Using the ‘back’ button will always exit the app, rather than return you to the previous screen as you’d expect from most mobile software. Albums are often presented with multiple versions of the same track that differ in name only. The sort function doesn’t help, as it will order the tracks to play all three versions of the album’s first song before moving on to the second track. Even worse, once one song is over it doesn’t move on to the next one until the app is open and active on the phone; which makes it pretty inconvenient for listening to music while doing other stuff. I gave it a sub-par rating of two stars on the Google Play Store to let them know I mean business.

Naxos Music Library is a great resource for classical music, but unfortunately is extremely expensive unless you can access via an institution (luckily for me, the University of York has an account students can use). The search on the app is a little awkward to use, but overall the interface isn’t too bad. It will usually have at least one recording of any well-known music from before the middle of the twentieth century. The main problem is that, because the majority of the content is classical music, the recordings are easily drowned out. Even the noise of mild traffic, or sitting on an idling bus, can make it difficult to hear the music, even at maximum volume (far above the point where my phone warns me about long-term hearing damage). I’ve written elsewhere about how I should start a label that releases classical music records compressed like pop albums so people can actually hear them outside of ideal environments; any interested venture capitalists reading this contact me please.

Mixcloud is a website for DJs and producers to upload their own mixes and sets, and as such is a very different experience to Spotify and most of the above services, which present either playlists or proper albums. A Mixcloud mix is like a playlist, but not shuffled, and with the transitions from one track to another controlled by the creator, as some , and like Soundcloud it also has a number of podcasts and radio shows. But as its name suggests, Mixcloud seems to be intentionally designed around presenting mixes created by DJs. A great feature of the service is that it will usually tell you what track is currently being played in a mix, so if you hear something you like in a set and want to track it down to hear it in the wild, it’s usually possible to do so.

YouTube (…I shouldn’t need to link this), is of course the obvious place to go to for music, and even if you like to listen to full albums, YouTube often has album uploads as well as music videos for individual songs. It can also be a great resource for mixes (like Soundcloud and Mixcloud) and rap mixtapes, which won’t usually be on other streaming services because they’re not normal commercial releases. The problem of course is that listening YouTube on a mobile device means you can’t use other software or lock the screen to put the phone away, as switching away from the video stops the stream. This problem is solved by the PVSTAR+ app, a nice little program which allows you to search Vimeo and Dailymotion in addition to YouTube, and doesn’t stop playing when you switch to a different app or lock the device. Unfortunately, YouTube is designed so that it’s impossible to stream just the audio data, so if you’re on a tight plan then this app will still count against your data limit even if you don’t watch the video. The interface is a little awkward at times, and the music does skip occasionally when switching between apps, but overall this is an excellent solution to the “streaming music from videos” problem.

I have a few articles to put up over the next few weeks, and I’m spending the upcoming week at the wonderful West Cork Chamber Music Festival, so I expect I will have a few posts coming back from that. I’ll be updating some other things on the blog and Soundcloud soon too.

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