• Tech

By the Numbers: The Streaming Music War (and Who’s Winning)

10 minute read

A dozen years ago, there were several different ways to get new music, each about as popular as the next. You could keep buying individual CDs, sign up for a CD delivery service, buy tracks one at a time through iTunes, or download huge chunks of music through user-friendly services like Napster — sites that were so easy to use it barely felt like you were doing anything wrong. They all seemed like perfectly acceptable methods; it was simply a matter of which style you preferred.

Fast-forward to 2014, however, and most people are listening the same way: through streaming music services. Yes, illegal music-downloading is still rampant, but as far as legal music-listening goes, streaming services are the new fad. Even Apple—whose pay-per-song iTunes once seemed like the future—has doubled-down on iTunes Radio, its music-streaming Pandora competitor. So just how widespread is the trend?

At FindTheBest, we counted a total of 102 separate services (counting basic and premium versions separately) that let you stream music (typically) from $0 – $10 per month. If you like, you can distinguish between on-demand services (like Spotify) that let you pick each song, and radio services (like Pandora) that choose songs for you, but the overall concept is similar: unlimited music for a low monthly fee.

So how do you stand out in a field with 101 similar-to-identical competitors? It comes down to brand. We looked at brand awareness and listener penetration from a 2014 Edison Research study to determine which services are on consumers’ minds…and which aren’t. We’ll count down the top 10 services based on consumer awareness, and comment on the strengths and weaknesses for each.

For a comparison of the specific features and pricing for 13 of the most popular services, see the earlier TIME story here. To research all 102 services we reviewed, visit the music streaming topic on FindTheBest.

Note: YouTube, VEVO (music videos) and SoundCloud (a social sound creation and sharing platform) each boast over 200 million users, but none are strictly music streaming services, so you won’t see them in this countdown.

10. Last.fm

Awareness: 8% (poor)

Listening percentage*: Below 2% (very poor)

*”Listening percentage” is the percentage of people polled who have actually listened to the service.

Type: Hybrid on-demand and radio service

The gist: More of a community than a standalone service, Last.fm lets you build a profile based on your musical tastes, then helps you find new music tailored to your preferences.

What’s working: Integration with other services. Over the past six months, Last.fm has integrated with Spotify, YouTube, and VEVO, resulting in tons of new content and a giant catalog of tracks.

What’s not: Awareness and penetration. Last.fm started in 2002, back when social profile-based sites were still the hottest thing on the Internet. Today, people want plug-and-play solutions that suggest great tracks instantaneously, not (yet another) online community that takes weeks of ramp-up to really work. Fewer than 1 in 10 people know the site exists, and fewer than 1 in 20 have actually bothered to try it.

9. TuneIn Radio

Awareness: 10% (poor)

Listening percentage: 2% (poor)

Type: Radio

The gist: TuneIn Radio provides a massive, online database of radio stations and podcasts, going well beyond music into sports, news and talk. By our estimates, it’s also got one of the highest user bases on our list—with 50 million users, it ranks #5 out of the 102 services we reviewed.

What’s working: Number of users. Due to a massive selection (100,000+) of stations, TuneIn Radio has plenty of customers.

What’s not: Precise music selection. TuneIn Radio has more stations than you can ever listen to, but it lacks the smart, custom-style stations popularized by Pandora. With TuneIn, you’re less likely to find the perfect station, and more likely to bounce around.

8. Radio.com

Awareness: 14% (somewhat poor)

Listening percentage: Below 2% (very poor)

Type: Radio

The gist: Similar to TuneIn, Radio.com offers a variety of radio shows, spanning from talk to sports to music.

What’s working: A simple, memorable brand. Even though 14% awareness isn’t all that good, it’s amazing that Radio.com even scores that high, given its comparatively small penetration numbers. Competitor TuneIn Radio has more overall users, but people are actually slightly more likely to recall Radio.com when polled.

What’s not: A unique offering. Radio.com lacks a killer feature or particularly memorable interface, preventing the service from ascending in the ranks.

7. Slacker

Awareness: 14% (somewhat poor)

Listening percentage: 2% (poor)

Type: Radio

The gist: Slacker is a lesser-known, more fully-featured alternative to Pandora. By our estimates, it has 13x the songs of Pandora, but only a fifth the subscribers. There are three pricing tiers (free, $4/month, $10/month), with the priciest option being the most compelling, given the sheer number of features.

What’s working: Features. Slacker Premium Radio offers unlimited skips, offline listening, custom playlists, and crucially, the ability to replay songs — something Pandora’s music contracts simply won’t allow.

What’s not: Pricing. Slacker’s big edge over Pandora is features, but you have to pay $10/month to get the ones that really set Slacker apart. Most consumers won’t be willing to shell out the extra cash, even if they’d be getting their money’s worth.

6. Google Play Music

Awareness: 24% (decent)

Listening percentage: 3% (poor)

Type: On-demand

The gist: Google Play Music is Google’s alternative to Spotify (on-demand listening, $10/month), with 18 million available tracks.

What’s working: Android integration. Google Play Music fills a music void for Android the way iTunes supports music on iOS devices. For Android users, Google Play Music is a natural — and readily available — service.

What’s not: Awareness. The awareness numbers are actually somewhat low for a Google product, but typical for the company, it’s done little to promote a lower-priority Google service. And you can’t really blame it, given how razor-thin music streaming profit margins tend to be.

5. Spotify

Awareness: 28% (good)

Listening percentage: 6% (decent)

Type: On-demand

The gist: The industry darling, Spotify is probably the most referenced on-demand music service in the world of tech. The company offers a desktop-only, ad-supported free service and a $10/month, mobile-enabled premium service.

What’s working: Branding. In 2011, Spotify launched in the U.S. to much fanfare and positive press—Americans finally had the chance to try the popular European music service. Spotify has remained in the news off and on since then, and today, more than one in three people will recognize the brand.

What’s not: Non-premium mobile options. Without a premium subscription, Spotify’s mobile offering becomes a less-capable version of Pandora, cycling through songs radio-style instead of providing on-demand selection. For mobile-users, the (pricey) Spotify Premium is a must.

4. Rhapsody

Awareness: 40% (great)

Listening percentage: 2% (poor)

Type: Hybrid radio and on-demand service

The gist: An industry veteran, Rhapsody’s been in and out of the music press for years (most notably, as part of a 2011 merger with Napster). Its “unRadio” offering, however, is brand new, a nifty little service announced this past June in partnership with T-Mobile. At a cost of just $5/month, unRadio customers can listen to Pandora-style radio stations, but with no ads and unlimited skips.

What’s working: Awareness. Rhapsody’s been around long enough to garner an impressive 40% brand awareness, an advantage that’s particularly helpful when it comes to rolling out new services like unRadio.

What’s not: Actual use. Just 2% of people have actually listened to Rhapsody, a fairly dismal figure next to its strong awareness numbers. The T-Mobile partnership, however, has the potential to shake out a few more users.

3. iTunes Radio + iTunes Match

Awareness: 47% (great)

Listening percentage: 8% (decent)

Type: Hybrid radio and on-demand service

The gist: Apple’s music radio service is a carbon-copy of Pandora, with similar features (smart stations) and annoyances (limited skips, ads). Meanwhile, the iTunes Match service ($25/year) lets you turn all that music you stole into legitimate, cloud-based versions stored in Apple’s servers. Once you’ve matched your library, you can play those songs from anywhere on any Apple device.

What’s working: The iTunes brand. Say what you will about iTunes (ex: clunky, out-of-date), people know the name, and that’s a built-in advantage for Apple.

What’s not: Apple’s innovative spirit. Apple’s iTunes Radio is thoroughly reactive—a nervous response to the success of Spotify and Pandora. The Beats acquisition might keep the company out of real trouble, but for the time-being, it’s playing catch-up.

2. iHeart Radio

Awareness: 48% (great)

Listening percentage: 9% (decent)

Type: Radio

The gist: Combines Pandora-style genre-based radio stations with actual, live radio stations.

What’s working: Users and awareness. With 48 million users and 48% awareness, iHeart Radio is the fifth most-used and second best-known music streaming service in the industry.

What’s not: Focus. iHeart Radio attracts a wide variety of users through its giant selection of custom and live radio stations, but it doesn’t have the immediate, tangible selling points of an app like Spotify (ex: find any song) or the attractive simplicity of a service like Pandora (ex: type in a genre and sit back).

1. Pandora

Awareness: 70% (excellent)

Listening percentage: 31% (great)

Type: Radio

The gist: The classic online radio service, Pandora lets you type in a genre, album, song or artist, then plays a selection of songs it predicts you will like. Pandora is proud enough of its music-matching system that the technology has its own fancy name: the Music Genome Project.

What’s working: Despite the recent influx of competition, Pandora remains by the far the most recognized and used service, with over 75 million users and brand awareness at a remarkable seven out of ten. The radio concept itself couldn’t be simpler, but Pandora has had 14 years to build its brand and hone its matching-system, which gives the company a huge advantage over competitors.

What’s not: Number of songs. Pandora has far fewer songs (~1 million) than most of its rivals, a discrepancy that could sneak up on it as the other services get better. For the time being, Pandora can ride its strong brand, but eventually, the best products have a tendency to win out.

This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com