First, the easy answer for anyone already into Spotify or Apple Music: if you have one you like, you’re not missing out. Both are excellent at what they do, and neither one lacks essential features. But if you’re undecided or going between free trials, here’s how to pick which one you give money to.
If you have your own files you want to listen to, get Apple Music
I have Apple Music for one specific reason: it’s the easiest service to use if you have bootlegs, personal mixes, any music that you can’t find on a streaming service, but still want to listen to.
For example, I have CDs from this series called FabricLive (they’re these excellent DJ sets from this club in London). These albums have modified versions of copyrighted songs, which is difficult for a streaming service to clear. I use iTunes and the CD drive from my 2011 MacBook Air to save a copy, and then I can access it from my phone. (You can do the same thing on Spotify, but it involves a clunky import process, and the result doesn’t quite sound right).
If you go across devices often, get Spotify
My biggest complaint about the otherwise excellent Apple Music is that while iTunes can play streaming music, it runs the same as it did five years ago. Spotify, on the other hand, has an excellent desktop app that you can use to control remote speakers. For example, from my desk at Popular Mechanics, I could start playing the Echo Dot and the Bluetooth speaker at my mom’s house, which is in another state. You can even play from a web browser interface.
Apple Music on iTunes works. Just not as seamlessly as Spotify.
If you want to find obscure stuff, get Apple Music
Spotify says it has “30-million plus” songs. Apple says it has “40 million.” In practice, that discrepancy will show up every once in a while, where, for a given artist, Apple Music will have one more album than Spotify, or access to some exclusive live release. But the reverse can be true, too. Which is all to say, neither one will guarantee the most access, and there’s always a chance of availability shifting.
Apple sometimes gets early releases before they hit Spotify. Artists like Drake and Frank Ocean have signed deals with Apple before, and more will likely follow. So if you have to hear a new release right when it comes out, Apple Music is more likely to have it first.
If you want human selection, get Apple Music
Another thing that Apple has that Spotify does not: real radio stations. I’ve been among the first of my friends to find great new songs because I heard them on Beats 1. Apple Music also has radio shows for artists like Run the Jewels, and genre- or decade-specific stations like Hip-Hop and 80s. Spotify’s has playlists, too, but its radio is limited to similar song algorithms.
That said, for algorithms, Spotify’s Discover Weekly function is reliably fantastic. I haven’t found anything in Apple Music that does the same thing as that Discover Weekly playlist.
If you use Alexa, get Spotify
I often play Apple Music from my phone to my Sonos One speakers using AirPlay. As long as my phone and the speakers are on the same Wi-Fi, you can control them. But if you like using Alexa to call out your music selections, Apple Music won’t work smoothly. Spotify just plays nicer with Echo devices, and as long as Apple sells the HomePod, I don’t expect the company to work well with Amazon’s speakers.
A note on sound quality
Both Spotify and Apple Music use similar bitrates for their music, and the result is that all except serious listeners with impressive equipment will have difficulty noticing any difference between the two services.
So, which one?
I don’t know any dissatisfied Spotify customers, so I recommend that to anyone trying to decide. The service has every song most customers could want, an intuitive navigation system, Discover Weekly, and compatibility with Alexa devices. But I keep coming back to Apple Music for reasons that only geeks will really want: access to a few more songs, Beats 1 and other radio stations with humans finding your music, and it lets me put my bootlegs in my library.