It seems only yesterday that Napster flipped the music distribution model on its head and practically overnight, the world went from buying music 13 tracks at a time for $15 to downloading entire band catalogs for free. And while music piracy is still alive and well, Napster has gone the way of the dinosaur and in its stead, legal music streaming apps have taken the spotlight.

According to Nielsen, on-demand music services streamed 317 billion tracks in 2015, a two-fold increase over the previous year. At the same time, digital track sales dropped 12.5 percent in 2015, and physical album sales fell by 6 percent. To put it in starker terms, the RIAA estimated that in 2010, streaming accounted for 7 percent of total U.S. music revenues. Today, it’s 34 percent.

Like any consumer tech platform, streaming apps like Apple Music, Tidal and Spotify are designed to connect users to a product—in this case, music. Though a seemingly basic proposition on the face of it, the ever-growing roster of streaming apps suggests there’s far more than one approach to mobile customer experience when it comes to music streaming apps.

What are the CX elements that make for a successful streaming app? Below, we take a look at Apple Music, Tidal and Spotify and rank them through the lens of three criteria.


The most basic element to any streaming platform is the size and quality of its content library. In terms of sheer scope, most music apps clock in at around 30 million tracks, meaning that by and large, most users will find pretty much any music they’re looking for regardless of the service they choose. That sense of being able to find anything—even an esoteric single from a one-hit wonder—is a signature hallmark of music streaming CX.

In some ways, this characteristic harkens back to the days of Napster and the sensation of having the sum of the world’s music at your fingertips. Music streaming apps essentially provide the same thing, except there’s a monthly fee and users don’t need to wait for songs to download.

As evidenced by the marked drop off in digital piracy, consumers by and large seem to prefer the user experience of streaming music legally, even though they have to pay for it. The reasoning behind this isn’t exactly rocket science: music-streaming apps are more convenient than pirating tools, and when it comes to choosing between convenience and saving $10, convenience almost always wins.

Still, not all streaming libraries are created equal. For example, Apple Music is the only service that carries Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. Tidal, co-owned by Jay Z and 16 other musicians, offers a variety of exclusive audio and video not available anywhere else.

Verdict: Draw


Since music libraries are largely the same across most streaming services, the interface for navigating them becomes a much more significant CX differentiator. How easy is it for users to interact with the service? Does the app behave the way you’d expect, or does it add songs to a streaming playlist when you think you’ve actually downloaded them for offline listening?

As a veteran in the music streaming space, Spotify has had more than eight years to iterate its user interface and consequently, it mostly does what you want it to. The home screen is populated with content tiles that include recently played tracks as well as recommendations based on listening history. The browse tab lets users search for music by genre, while the search screen is efficiently formatted as a list.

When Tidal first launched in 2014, its interface, especially the desktop version, was widely regarded as a Spotify clone. While it certainly replicates many Spotify design elements, like content tiles and sidebar menus, it arguably does a better job with them, presenting a stripped-down version of Spotify’s often-cluttered UI.

Apple Music first launched in June of 2015 and was immediately panned for its unintuitive design—a particularly damning critique for a company whose products are renowned for being, well, intuitive. One of the biggest issues is that adding a track to “My Music” doesn’t actually download it for offline listening. To do that, users essentially need to save it twice—a process that isn’t clearly articulated within the app. As a result, users are often unable to access music when they need it most: during underground commutes.

Verdict: Tidal

Extra Features

Just about every streaming service offers unique extras to sweeten the deal, and some of them are actually pretty good. From a customer experience standpoint, this is a crucial aspect of any consumer product. Especially when it comes to a field crowded with similar offerings, it’s not enough to simply cover all the basics—brands need to offer users something unique that sets the experience apart from others.

Tidal, because it’s co-owned by recording artists, often hosts exclusive content that’s unavailable elsewhere. It’s also the only music streaming app that offers lossless audio, albeit at twice the price.

Spotify’s standout feature is its integration with social networks, which can be a pro or con depending on whether a user wants to share their listening history on Facebook.

Apple Music’s saving grace is undoubtedly Beats 1 Radio, a 24-hour radio station that plays new music curated by human DJs. It’s a refreshingly accessible and consistently solid approach to music discovery, especially in contrast to the algorithmic playlists most people associate with music apps.

Verdict: Apple Music

If you’re still having trouble choosing a music streaming app, the best thing to do is simply test the waters. Most apps offer a free tier or trial period and setting up an account is relatively painless.