In a music industry that is increasingly dominated by online streaming platforms, Spotify and SoundCloud are two of the most powerful driving forces. Most people who listen to music online have used one or both of the platforms at some point, and many use them every single day. If you had to choose between Spotify and SoundCloud, though, which would you pick? For some, the answer probably comes to mind immediately. But if you’re anything like me, that’s a tough question. Both Spotify and SoundCloud have major appeal that make it difficult to imagine a music landscape without the two of them together.
That’s why today, I’m going to dive deep into the topic of Spotify vs. SoundCloud and try to reach a conclusion about which platform is the better way to listen. Find below a detailed outline of the strengths and weaknesses of both Spotify and SoundCloud, in a full comparative analysis from somebody who has used both platforms extensively. Toss on some music, because this is going to be a long one.
Users: 180 million+
Library: 40 million+ songs from 2 million+ artists
Streaming quality: Up to 320 kbps
Price: Free, $9.99/mo Premium, $14.99/mo Family, $4.99/mo Student
Value: $20 billion
Note: Spotify is a publicly traded company, which means that anybody with an investment account can buy or sell shares of Spotify (SPOT) stock.
Easy to use
One of the biggest things that Spotify has going for it is how easy it is to use. Both the mobile and desktop versions are user-friendly and intuitive. This makes it an extremely accessible platform, because your average internet or smartphone user can download the Spotify app and set it up without finding themselves confused on how the process works. Before long they’ll be making playlists and finding new music like a pro.
Most established artists have music on Spotify
If you’re a casual music listener, and you’re wondering whether or not a song you like is available on Spotify, the answer is probably yes, and there’s a good chance that artist’s concerts are listed on Spotify as well. Since Spotify is the industry-leading streaming platform, most artists prioritize getting their music on Spotify first, and in turn have their entire discography available for your listening pleasure. There are some cases, though, where prominent artists have chosen not to put their music on Spotify, or have taken their music off Spotify after once having it available. More on that in the Spotify Cons section later.
Social features designed for discovering music
The social aspect of Spotify is one of my favorite resources in the endless quest for new music. Following friends allows you to see their recently played artists, their public playlists, and on desktop the Friend Feed shows you in real-time what people you follow are listening to. There’s also the option to create a collaborative playlist that multiple people can add music to. I like to use collaborative playlists to explore festival lineups with people I’m planning to attend with. Everybody can add their favorite finds from artists on the lineup to one big playlist, and it gives you an idea of the kind of shows you’ll be seeing that weekend. All of this contributes to Spotify being a great way to find new music and share it with your friends (even on your Instagram story).
Curated and algorithm-based playlists
In addition to sharing playlists with your friends, Spotify offers official playlists that can also be useful for finding new music. Some of the official Spotify playlists are curated by who their website refers to as “music experts from around the globe”, while others are spun up by their algorithm. Algorithm-based playlists like “Discover Weekly” and “Release Radar” are updated once per week with a fresh batch of songs based on your listening habits. Then, at the end of the year, Spotify gives you a roundup of your most listened to music of the year, which also comes with a few of your very own greatest hits playlists.
Supports offline use
These days it’s rare to find yourself in a place without either cell phone signal or a wi-fi connection, but when you do, it’s always nice to have your music handy. Spotify offers its premium subscribers the ability to download up to 10,000 songs so they can listen without an internet connection. All you have to do, as a Spotify premium subscriber, is tap or click save on a song or album that you’d like to download, and you’ll find it available the next time you’re disconnected.
Free version is very limited
To put it simply, you really need to pay for Spotify premium if you want to get the full experience. The free version of Spotify plays ads every few songs, and on mobile it only allows you to shuffle, so you can’t pick a specific song that you want to hear but rather you have to hope that shuffle lands on it. There’s also the matter of audio quality: Spotify free users are limited to 96kbps on mobile and 160kbps on Desktop, while premium users can stream up to 320 kbps. If you’re not paying attention you may not notice the difference in sound quality, but when you compare the quality levels through headphones or on a nice soundsystem, the difference is fairly obvious.
Lacking in underground music and remixes
Although Spotify does boast a huge catalog of music and a respectable variety, there is plenty of stuff that you won’t find on there. For example, most underground DJs and hip-hop artists exclusively use SoundCloud as a way of sharing their music. Then you’ve got your DIY bands that are faithful to Bandcamp, which is how they primarily promote to people in their local music scene. Then there are the jam bands like Phish, whose diehard fans swear by specific versions of “Tweezer” that are only in archives or on YouTube. Basically, if you’re the type of person who likes the niche stuff, you might find Spotify’s catalog to be somewhat lacking. Especially because it’s currently not possible for artists to upload their own music to Spotify, so they have to go through a distributor.
Missing music from several big-name artists
To expand on what I mentioned earlier about certain artists choosing to keep their music off Spotify, there are several prominent artists who you won’t find in their library. For various reasons, you won’t find music from Garth Brooks, Jay-Z, Tool, Joanna Newsome, Aaliyah, and several more on the platform. Neil Young, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin were not available in the past, but have since been added. You might be one of the unlucky few whose favorite artist does not have music on Spotify, and that would obviously sour your opinion on the platform.
Criticized for low artist payouts
One of the biggest concerns about Spotify is the ongoing criticism about low payouts for artists. Spotify pays artists about $7 per 1000 streams, which is a sadly low number when you consider that many of these artists are trying to make a living with their music. While this criticism isn’t unique to Spotify, they do have the most paid subscribers, which means they should in theory be able to afford paying artists more per stream, yet their payouts are far from the highest. This isn’t necessarily a huge concern from a Spotify usability perspective, but it is still something to consider.
Users: 175 million+
Library: 180 million+ tracks by 20 million+ creators
Streaming quality: 128 kbps
Price: Free, $6/mo Pro, $12/mo Pro Unlimited, $9.99/mo Go+
Value: $700 million
Independent artists can upload their own tracks
The defining feature of SoundCloud is that anybody who wants to upload a track can do it with a free account. In this way, SoundCloud’s legacy is one of empowering bedroom artists by giving them a way to share their music with other people. It’s what sets SoundCloud apart from other music streaming services, and truly has been revolutionary when it comes to the internet age of the music industry. With SoundCloud, you don’t need anything fancy to put your work out there; you just need to create the music and share it with your followers.
Free version is good enough for most users
For somebody who simply wants to use SoundCloud to listen to and find new music, the free version is more than sufficient. There are ads, but in my experience they are minimal, and they rarely interfere with my listening experience. Also, SoundCloud has a unique (but vague) payout structure that offers certain artists a percentage of the revenue made from ads on the platform. Speaking of artists, the free version of Soundcloud allows them to upload up to 180 minutes (3 hours) worth of music, which is plenty for most people who are just starting out. Unless you’re making hour-long DJ mixes. In that case you might want to go for SoundCloud Pro right from the jump.
Great social platform to discover new music
SoundCloud is essentially a social media platform for music lovers and creators. With a SoundCloud profile, users can follow other users and like, comment on, or repost tracks from their feed. The SoundCloud repost function is similar to the retweet function on Twitter, allowing users to share tracks from other users on their profile, where it will then be shown to that user’s followers who can interact with the track as they please. It’s easy to see how this process can lead to a chain reaction, with SoundCloud tracks going viral and reaching millions of users in a short period of time. This kind of fluidity of content makes SoundCloud unique and allows you to craft your own experience by deciding which users to follow.
Breeding place for underground hip-hop and EDM
Since SoundCloud’s library is mostly made up of user-created content, it has become a breeding ground for underground hip-hop and electronic music. Many big-name artists (mostly rappers) in 2019 first got started by uploading tracks to SoundCloud. Artists like Post Malone, Chance the Rapper, Travis Scott, and many more started in the underground of SoundCloud, and have grown to have successful careers in the mainstream (Post Malone headlined Bonnaroo in 2019). And for every big-name artist who graduates from SoundCloud, there are thousands more who are still on there posting interesting new music every single day. The amount of unique underground music to be found on SoundCloud cannot be overstated. Start digging and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
Ability to privately share demos and unreleased recordings
One final feather in the hat of SoundCloud is the ability to set certain tracks as private, and then share them only with certain people using a private link. This is useful for bands and artists who are trying to share advance copies of an album that hasn’t come out yet, or set up an exclusive debut of a track with an online publication. This can also be a useful tool for a band that’s trying to book their first show, that maybe has a demo tape that they’d want to show to venues and promoters, but not release to the public. Simply upload the tracks to SoundCloud, mark them as private, and get the private link to share with a select few.
Does not pay artists by default
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about how SoundCloud works is the fact that in order for artists to get paid for streams on their tracks, they need to pay for a Pro subscription and meet a few other criteria. Now, there are benefits to the Pro version of SoundCloud outside of getting paid for streams, but it seems counter-intuitive that you would have to pay for a subscription in order to make money off something that you created. SoundCloud is already making money off user-uploaded content, so it seems logical that monetization would be available to everybody, but for some reason it is not.
No support for offline use
While Spotify allows users to download select music for offline streaming, SoundCloud offers no such option. This means that in order to use SoundCloud, you need to have an internet connection. If you’re somebody who uses SoundCloud as your main source for listening to music then you’ve probably found yourself in a situation where you don’t have internet so you can’t listen to music. That can make for a long flight.
Unable to turn off autoplay feature
A minor qualm I have with SoundCloud is that there is no option to turn off the autoplay feature. This means that when you listen to a song on SoundCloud and you don’t have anything in the queue, the app will automatically play another song afterwards, and so on. The problem with this feature for me is that whatever algorithm that SoundCloud uses to decide the next track in succession is terrible. I can’t remember one single occasion when the next track was actually something that I wanted to hear. An option to turn off autoplay seems like a simple enough feature for SoundCloud to add, so I’m not sure why it hasn’t been implemented yet after all these years.
Update 9/23/19: Soundcloud does allow web and Android users to turn of Autoplay with the Next Up feature. Unfortunately iOS users do not have this feature as of now. More info can be found here.
Sound quality is mediocre
If the sound quality on the free version of Spotify sounds bad to you, then SoundCloud is not going to make you very happy. The maximum streaming quality for tracks on SoundXloud is 128 kbps, which is lower than even the free version of Spotify’s streaming quality. Now, like I mentioned earlier, this may not be an issue for the average listener, but I know at least one person reading this has a thing for high quality sound, and probably cringed at that 128 kbps number. Just ask Neil Young.
Future is uncertain
There has been a great deal of uncertainty over the years regarding SoundCloud’s financial viability. In 2017, SoundCloud laid off 40% off its employees and closed their offices in London and San Francisco, and there was growing speculation that SoundCloud would not have enough money to last out the year. That wasn’t the first of the financial woes for SoundCloud, who in the past has been in talks about a buyout from Twitter, Apple, and Spotify, and it probably won’t be the last. The good news is that with such a strong and dedicated userbase, SoundCloud isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
The Final Verdict
Coming up with a final answer in this Spotify vs. SoundCloud debate is not an easy thing to do. When you think about all the points outlined above, it’s clear that Spotify and SoundCloud are really meant to do different things. Yes, they are both music streaming services, but the way they go about it is different enough to place them firmly into their own categories that allows them to co-exist. For now.
Spotify is the clear-cut choice for the casual music listener with an interest for finding out about music they’ve never heard before. With a sizable library ranging from major label releases to more obscure, indie label stuff, there is generally something to satisfy everybody to be found on Spotify. As long as you opt for the premium option, you are highly likely to fall in love with the platform.
SoundCloud, on the other hand, is the obvious choice for the person who creates their own music on a computer, or is into music that was made by bedroom artists on their computers. With a plethora of underground hip-hop and electronic music, SoundCloud is a haven for fans of those genres, and it offers a chance to hear about artists before they break out of SoundCloud into the mainstream. If not that, it’s a great place to find extended remixes of your favorite tracks, mash-ups, covers, and everything in between.
Perhaps the best option here, rather than forcing a choice between Spotify or SoundCloud, is to embrace both platforms for different reasons, and different occasions. What do you think?