What makes a good music streaming service?

girl listening to music in laptop

No matter how much people like Noel Gallagher might moan about it, streaming music is the future. Actually, it’s not the future – it’s right now.

The number of people listening to music via streams, and the amount of revenue it's producing, is growing year-on-year. In fact, Brits streamed a whopping 14.8 million tracks in 2014, and that isn't even counting the tunes we listened to on YouTube and Soundcloud.

But, as we've all seen from Taylor Swift's beef with Apple Music and Spotify, there's still a lot of contention in the industry over what exactly a music streaming service ought to do. It's an important question, and with corporate giants like Amazon now throwing their hat into the musical ring - and Facebook rumoured to be doing the same - it's one we need answering. What should a good music streaming app do?

It needs to be fair on artists

It can be difficult to get musicians on board with streaming, which seems bizarre considering it's such a good way to get people listening to your music. Looking under the surface reveals why. Artists haven't always been fairly compensated by streaming apps, even the legal ones - back in 2010, you'd need 4 million streams on Spotify per month just to make the US minimum wage - and as streaming has grown in popularity, actual music sales have dwindled. Of course, that doesn't mean streaming is inherently bad, it just means we need a revised, fairer model for our fibre-optic-smartphone-internet-of-things connected world.

That's what Jay Z's Tidal was supposed to do. He promised that the money the company makes from subscriptions would go right back to the artists, in a model designed to be truly fair to those who put the hard work into making, distributing, and managing music. 75% of the service's revenue, Jay Z said, would go straight back to the rights holders.

Still… that's not a lot better than the 70% of revenue that Spotify now offers. And 'rights holders' doesn't always mean the artists themselves - it usually means their record label. How much money an artist gets per stream isn't actually down to Tidal.

Spotify iPhone app

And it faces one more pretty big issue…

It also needs to benefit listeners

Tidal was notoriously badly received. There's something about a group of millionaires standing up on stage and telling you about how their service will get them more money that just grates with people, for some reason.

The advantages of Tidal for the average listener weren't quite clear - You want us to pay how much? Does it need to be lossless? Doesn't Spotify charge half as much for the same thing? - and so far that seems to be its downfall. There were similar complaints about Apple Music, too. Apple Outsider blogger Matt Drance said he felt the service was 'designed around a business initiative' rather than around what users want - and as a result, it's unintuitive and full of weird bugs. Today there are tons of streaming services out there, and if music fans don't like one, we simply won't use it. There'll be another with more songs, a better interface, a cheaper price.

In other words, there's no point in a streamer that truly benefits artists if no one's going to pay to use it in the first place.

So - what do we, the listeners, want from a music streaming app?

Besides needing it to work properly with an interface that makes sense (looking at you, Apple Music), the main thing we really want is, well, lots of music. Apple is actually leading the way here with 37 million songs, followed by Deezer with 35 million and Rdio with 32 million. Amazon will need to step up its game if it wants to be a contender, as Prime Music only has around 1 million tracks.

Woman listening to music on headphones

We also want it to be good value. That doesn't necessarily mean cheap, of course - 20 million people across the globe are willing to pay £9.99 per month for the added benefits of Spotify Premium, despite there being very little difference in music from the free version. Since Amazon Prime is £79 for the whole year - including a ton of Amazon benefits on top of the music - people may actually be willing to pay for it.

Being able to access the same library on all our devices is always ideal, too. As is being able to discover new music we might like. Not to mention some social perks - it's simply not a party without a collaborative Spotify playlist, after all.

So what should Amazon do?

Prime Music is coming into a crowded market. But if Amazon is sensible, it'll use this to its advantage, by learning from the mistakes that other streaming services have made. A good one will think of itself as a middleman between listeners and artists, making sure that both sides get what they need from streaming.

That said, it's pretty clear that we need a shakeup of the whole industry. Musicians need to be paid; listeners want good value and an app that works well; and so far no one's figured out how to satisfy us all.

Music fans really do care about their favourite musicians getting fair compensation - take a look at the success of Kickstarter and Patreon for artists - but we balk at anything that looks profit-driven. Perhaps Amazon is successful enough that Prime Music will manage to strike the middle ground. Either way, it can't be hated more than those dreaded Spotify ads.

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