Last month, shit got real for the music industry when Universal Music Group (UMG) CEO Lucian Grainge announced a permanent ban on exclusive distribution deals between labels, artists and streaming services. After the release of Frank Ocean’s Blonde on August 20, the ban was instated.

Good riddance, quite frankly. The problem with distribution exclusivity deals is that they undermine the entire reason these services exist—to disseminate music to the masses and make good music as accessible as possible. Even though it’s only one label banning the practice right now, UMG isn’t exactly small cookies and Grainge isn’t exactly a nobody. For instance, in 2015, UMG was responsible for seven of the year’s 10 best-selling albums. Individually, Grainge is widely considered one of the most powerful people in the entire industry—oftentimes, what he says goes.

So what does this mean for streaming services? Well, it’s going to make the market a lot more competitive, for one. And it means that they’re all going to have to actually get by on the products they offer rather than the artists who sign bullshit backdoor deals with them, and that’s exciting.

Apple Music and Tidal are two of the biggest players in the on-demand music streaming game, and unfortunately for them, a lot of their clout comes from their artist exclusivity deals. With that rug mostly pulled out from under them this month, we figured it’d be a good idea to have a side-by-side comparison to see who’s better prepared for Hurricane Grainge, and how they stack up to a service like Spotify, which doesn’t care about artist exclusives. So, let’s get to it:

You Can Use Spotify for Free

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Let’s start with the easiest comparison: More than 66 percent of Spotify’s overall users don’t pay the $9.99 for Spotify’s premium membership services. Literally 55 million users listen for free daily.

Both Tidal and Apple Music are paid-only subscription services, with Apple offering full membership for $9.99/month, and Tidal offering basic membership for $9.99 and “HiFi” for $19.99. The ads on Spotify can get pretty bad from time to time, but that’s just the price you pay for free streaming. Even at $9.99, their premium subscription pays for itself immediately.

Apple Has the Biggest Catalogue—Period

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If you’re simply looking for the most music, Apple Music is your huckleberry—for now. When it first launched, Tidal had a little more than half of Apple Music’s available catalogue, and it was problematic, to say the least. Hov’s camp spent a lot of time trying to rectify that minor crisis by not only expanding its catalogue as rapidly as possible (duh), but also by locking down artist exclusives.

Today, the disparity is much less drastic. Apple Music users have access to over 43 million tracks, while Tidal clocks in a little over 40 million. They’re close, but hey, 3 million songs is still 3 million songs.

Spotify used to be the undisputed king of content, but that no longer appears to be the case. Spotify’s latest catalogue count doesn’t seem to be available, but the latest report we could find from April 2016 said that it had over 30 million, and typically adds 20,000 new songs per day. Spotify lists no specific number on its site.

Any way you cut it, each of the services is comparable, but Apple takes the cake.

Tidal Has Better File Compression

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Tidal offers two membership tiers. One is a basic membership for $9.99 per month, which includes access to their streaming music library, their library of music videos and the editorial content for which they’ve gained some popularity. The music is streamed at a standard AAC 320kbps. Then there’s Tidal’s “HiFi” subscription for $19.99, which includes everything in the standard (“Premium”) subscription, but streams at CD-quality, “lossless compression”—that’s as high-quality as your music is going to get.

Spotify offers users free streaming at 320kbps, which is awesome, as well as an ad-free version of the same quality for $9.99 per month. They don’t bother with the “lossless compression” angle, probably because they’re doing just fine without it.

Apple Music only has one subscription price—$9.99/month—and streams audio files at a flat AAC 256kbps, which is, for what it’s worth, below industry standards. You’re likely not enough of a music nerd to discern the difference between 256 and 320kbps (in a blind test, more than half of people usually get it wrong), nor, for that matter, between 320kbps and a lossless FLAC file. Nevertheless, it’s a detail to consider, and Tidal comes out the winner here.

Spotify Has More User-Generated Content

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So much of what people love about services like Tidal, Apple Music and Spotify is that they not just allow, but rely on, user-generated content. Both Tidal and Apple Music offer users the ability to create and share playlists, which is a hugely popular trend these days, but none compare to Spotify.

Spotify has over 20 million subscribers to its paid service, and over 55 million people listening to it for free. That’s over 75 million users—more than Apple Music and Tidal combined—and Spotify engages their users in almost social media-like capacities. Users can share music with one another, create and share playlists, discuss new artists, etc. Spotify users are super involved in the platform, almost to the point of being downright evangelical. So, if you’re looking for the best user experience and communities, Spotify is where you should put your money.

Between Apple Music and Tidal, Apple’s followers simply dwarf Tidal’s. As of April 2016, Apple brings a staggering 13 million users to the table. Tidal brings just over 4 million. That’s it (for now).

Tidal Needs to Be Less Glitchy

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In this category, it looks as though both Tidal and Apple Music are plagued by some pretty weak user interfaces (U.I.), although Apple has at least begun to repent for its aesthetic sins.

Tidal caught a metric shit-tonne of flack early on because its U.I. was exceptionally glitchy—songs would auto-skip, the app would crash and the high-quality music couldn’t play much of the time because it was sloshing through a bulky, clunky U.I. Tidal’s entire lifecycle is marred by technical errors and glitches, and it seems they’re going to have to delve way more into the development and user experience side of their product if they intend on claiming their stake and making a grab at the throne.

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Before the app’s major overhaul in June, Apple Music was heavily compared to iTunes, except bigger and more convoluted. The team at Apple knew the app wasn’t performing as they’d hoped, so when rumors started popping up earlier this year that Apple Music would be getting a facelift, users were relieved. Apple revealed the re-design at WWDC back in June, but the new version isn’t expected to drop officially until the iOS 10 release later this year.

And with Spotify, there isn’t really much to add. Users enjoy both the web interface and smartphone app. The company has spent a ton of time and effort perfecting its U.I., and it shows. Spotify even brags on its website that it can be played on mobile, through your desktop, on your gaming consoles and so on. The U.I. is seamless, regardless of where it’s being played. Spotify takes the cake here.

Tidal Compensates Artists Far Better

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If you care about the artists behind the music you love, it’s important to note that Tidal—a streaming service created by a musical artist, in a climate where musical artists are frequently shat on by their streaming service provider—compensates its artists better than damn near anyone else, and by a pretty massive margin.

It’s true that unless your record is getting hundreds of thousands of plays, an artist’s compensation on any of these services is probably near inconsequential. However, that said, Tidal pays its artists $0.007 per stream. If that fragment of a penny seems absurd, it’s because it is—at least, until you learn that Apple Music only pays artists $0.0013 per stream. That’s literally one-thousandth of a penny per stream, and Spotify pays even less than that, at $0.0011 per stream.

It’s worth considering that, even though Tidal pays more, there’s such a tremendous disparity in each service’s user count that it almost evens out compared to Apple Music, and actually may pay even more with Spotify, depending on the song’s/artist’s popularity. However, in principle, Tidal is the frontrunner in this category.

So, Which One Is the Winner?

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What does it all mean? Truthfully, someone could probably write a small book comparing and contrasting these three streaming services. We’ve touched on a few of them, but there are plenty of other comparisons to make.

Grainge’s announcement last week may not be the nail in the coffin for either Apple Music or Tidal, but it’s true that both were depending on the whole “exclusive releases” thing to keep them afloat. The team at Spotify is no doubt kicking back with shit-eating grins right now, waiting for the chips to land in their favor.

Now that it seems as though the days of exclusive music distribution will soon come to an end, Spotify seems like it will keep the throne. Its user base is absolutely massive, its fans are evangelical and its catalogue grows more and more steadily by the day.

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However, Apple Music shouldn’t be completely discounted—its user base is large, its U.I. is headed for a major overhaul and there’s even rumor of 320kbps streaming coming. Tidal, on the other hand, is currently trailing in third place, although it’s an infant service at this point. Once it irons out its glitches and starts to expand, users who value sound quality and compensation for artists may well jump ship.

Spotify is currently reigning supreme, but Apple has the catalogue and user base to go for the throat, and Tidal has distinguishing features that mean it could one day be a strong contender. All Spotify’s competitors need to do now is offer a product worth going to war over.

In other music news, check out ScHoolboy Q’s new twerk-centric music video.

  • Words: Maxwell Barna
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