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Streaming vs. Downloading: What’s the Best Way to Get New Digital Music

You’re used to downloading new music from Apple’s iTunes Store or the Amazon MP3 Store. But many users are ditching the downloads and instead listening to all the music they want via streaming music services, such as Spotify and Pandora. In this article, Michael Miller, author of The Ultimate Digital Music Guide, examines the pros and cons of both streaming and downloading music, and offers suggestions on which approach is best for you.
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If you’re like me, you get a lot of new music from the Internet. Traditionally, that meant downloading tracks purchased from Apple’s iTunes Store or some similar online music store. But now there’s another way to get music online, via streaming music services that offer a huge library of tracks for a single low monthly fee. (Or even for free!)

How does streaming music differ from downloading music – and which is better? It’s a hot topic for both casual and serious music lovers. Read on to learn more.

Understanding the Difference Between Downloading and Streaming Music

You’re probably familiar with music downloading. You purchase individual tracks (or albums, if you like) from an online music store, such as Apple’s iTunes Store or the Amazon MP3 Store, or purchase tracks directly from an artist or label website. There’s also the option of downloading music without paying for it (which is illegal, of course) from file sharing and BitTorrent sites.

The process of downloading music is simple. You go to a download site, find the track you want, pay for it, and then sit back as that audio file is downloaded over the Internet to your computer’s hard drive. You now own that audio file and can use it as you wish, just as you would with a CD you purchased.

Depending on which source you download from, the files you download are in either MP3, AAC, or WMA format. You can play downloaded files on your computer, networked media player, portable music player, or smartphone.

After enough downloads, you end up with your own library of digital music files. If you’d rather rent than own, however, there’s another approach – streaming music services.

A streaming music service, such as Spotify or Pandora, essentially rents music to you on a month-to-month basis. These are “all you can eat” (or, more accurately, “all you can listen to”) services; you pay one flat monthly fee and can then listen to all the music you want. You don’t own any of it; it all comes streaming to you over the Internet, in real time. With most streaming services, you can listen on any device connected to the Internet – your computer, your tablet, your smart phone, and so forth.

With streaming music, you don’t own any of the music you listen to. Instead, you get access to the tens of millions of tracks hosted by the streaming service, and listen to them anywhere there’s an Internet connection. When you cancel your subscription, you no longer have access to all those tracks – but, then again, you didn’t have to pay for them individually, anyway.

When Downloading Music Makes Sense – and When It Doesn’t

While music streaming makes sense in certain circumstances, downloading has always been the activity of choice for serious music collectors. (Emphasis here on the word “collector.”) Let me explain why.

While streaming services provide access to tens of millions of tracks, it’s kind of like listening to the radio – you don’t own any of it yourself. If you’re interesting in building your own personal music collection, you want to own the music you love. The only way to do this is to purchase, download, and store that music on your own system.

When you download an album or a track from the Internet, you have that specific digital audio file in your possession, stored on your computer’s hard drive. You can then copy the audio file to another computer, beam it to a portable music player for listening on-the-go, or use it in whatever fashion you want. It’s yours.

In addition, when you download a music file (at least a legal one from an authorized site), it comes with information about the track. The metadata built into the file typically includes the track name, artist name, genre, composer, year recorded, and so forth[md]everything a collector needs to know to organize his or her collection. (That typically includes an image file of the album cover, too.) That’s a nice plus.

But the major benefit is getting to do just about anything you want with the music you download – now and in the future. With streaming services, you never know for sure what tracks will be available to listen to; it’s always possible for an artist or a label to pull their music from a given service. When you purchase a track, however, you have it – it doesn’t matter what the artist or label does or doesn’t do in the future, you have that file and can listen to it whenever and wherever you choose. You can listen to it once a day or once a year. You can listen to it in your living room or your bedroom or even when you’re cutting your grass or flying cross country. The power is in your hands.

You have to pay for that power, however, which is one of the beefs against traditional downloading. At a buck a track, building a large music library costs significant moolah. I suppose you could go the file sharing route, but that’s illegal and takes money from the mouths of starving musicians. If you want to download a track, pay for that privilege – but budget appropriately.

You may also run into some technical issues when downloading. Not every file you download will be playable on every device or software program you own. That’s because there still exist file compatibility problems. While the MP3 format is near universal, no other format is. (Although Apple’s AAC format is close to becoming so.) It’s possible that a file you download from site A won’t be playable on device B – and that’s annoying, especially after you spent the necessary bucks.

When Streaming Music Makes Sense

Streaming music services negate both the cost and compatibility problems you have with music downloads. For $5 or $10 a month, you get access to tens of millions of tracks – it not quite all the music in the world, certainly a fairly large selection. You can listen to this music on any device connected to the Internet – your computer, of course, but also your iPod or iPhone or iPad. No compatibility problems there.

What you get with a streaming music subscription service, then, is access to a large amount of music at a fairly low price. What you don’t get is outright ownership. You’re in effect renting the music you listen to; if and when you close your subscription, you don’t have access to any of that music anymore.

All this makes streaming music an attractive proposition for casual listeners. For a low monthly fee (or free, in some instances), you get to listen to music whenever you want, wherever you happen to be. Whether you want background music while you’re studying or something funkier for an upcoming party, listening to streaming music is as easy as tuning the dial on an FM radio. In fact, that’s the comparison; streaming audio is just like listening to AM or FM radio, but with more channels available and the ability (in most instances) to customize your own channels. It’s all the music you can listen to, served to you in real time – which is why streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and Last.fm are the hottest things going right now.

Serious music collectors, however, are less enthusiastic about streaming music, for a number of reasons.

First, there’s the issue of not actually owning the music you listen to. I know, you don’t own the music you listen to on FM radio, either, but we’re talking about the appeal to collectors here. With streaming music, there’s nothing to collect. It’s all rather transitory; you don’t get the opportunity to build your own private music collection.

Then there’s the issue of audio quality. If you’re an audiophile, you get the best sound quality by ripping music direct from CDs in lossless format. Next best is downloading from a site that offers high-bitrate encoding; the iTunes Store, for example, offers tracks encoded at 256Kbps, which sounds pretty good to most folks. Streaming services, however, tend to offer lower bitrate music, typically something between 128Kbps and 320Kbps, with most tending towards that lower number. That means sound quality is notably compressed compared to what you get elsewhere, which is not music to an audiophile’s golden ears.

You also may not experience a perfectly smooth listening experience, especially if your Internet connection is slow or spotty. Remember, you’re streaming music in real time over the Internet. If you’re using a public hotspot or your home connection is prone to bandwidth constraints, you may find your music going jittery or freezing up altogether.

Even worse, don’t expect to listen to your music if you don’t have an Internet connection – like if you’re driving in your car, or flying on an airplane. Since none of this music is stored locally, you have to have an Internet connection to hear anything. Nix the connection and you don’t get any music. It’s as simple as that.

It’s also possible that any given streaming music service won’t have all the music you want to listen to. Even Spotify, which boasts more than 15 million tracks, has some obvious holes in its library. (No Beatles tunes, for example.) Most streaming services offer very large libraries, but the selection offered may not be totally to your liking.

All that said, I think that streaming music services have some appeal to serious music lovers – including collectors. For a relatively low monthly fee (or free, in some instances), you get exposure to a large variety of music, including a ton of new music. Personally, I use streaming audio not to listen to my favorite tunes (I already have them in my own collection) but rather to discover new music. Maybe that’s a new artist I’ve been hearing some buzz about, perhaps it’s a new album from an artist I’m familiar with but on the fence about. In any case, I can listen for free (more or less) and then determine whether I want to buy the album and add it to my collection.

In addition, most streaming services are great for social sharing online. Want to spread the news about a great new album? Listen to it on Spotify or another service and then share it via Facebook to the world at large. In return, your friends will share their latest discoveries. It’s music sharing, pure and simple.

What’s Best for You: Downloading or Streaming?

At the end of the day, the major difference between streaming and downloading is that streaming is transitory, where downloading is permanent. Think of a streaming music service as the 21st century equivalent of an old school radio station, albeit one you can program yourself. The music is of the moment, where the music you download is yours to keep, forever.

So whether you decide to download or stream depends a lot on how serious a music lover you are – and how possessive you are. Serious music lovers may be disappointed in the selection offered by any given streaming service, while serious audiophiles will be disappointed by the sound quality. And collectors – well, they need to collect, not to rent. To collectors, permanence matters.

For these types of listeners, then, downloading music remains the method of choice. For anybody else – and that includes the bulk of the listening audience – streaming music has a lot of appeal. You pay a small monthly fee and get to listen to just about anything you want, on any device you own, from a rather large music library. That’s why Spotify and its brethren are so hot right now; this is a great way for most people to listen to music online.

Will streaming music services replace music downloads? Not for the true audiophile or collector, that’s for sure, but maybe for everybody else. If you absolutely positively have to own the music you love – and if you want the best possible audio quality – then by all means, stick to downloading. (And make sure you have a big enough budget to pay for all the music you want to download.) On the other hand, if you want to listen to a lot of different music without paying an arm and a leg, and don’t mind not personally owning any of it, then by all means go the streaming music route. At $10 or less a month, it’s really a great bargain.

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