Streaming: Limitless Choice or Ultimate Connection?

The great streaming debate is not an argument over how long these types of music services will continue to exist. The discussion that is worthy of your 140 characters is around what functionality of the streaming genre will win over in the end? What does the listener want - limitless choice, or connection to the artist?

The front runners in streaming operate primarily as giant jukeboxes and customised radio stations. But some have greater potential to connect communities. So how do they measure up from the artist's perspective?

Spotify (5 million users) has come out as the media's favourite to hype. With major label catalogue from launch (and 6 million tracks in total), most of what the masses want to hear can be found on the service - unless you are on a small indie whose catalogue is part of the millions of tracks waiting to be uploaded (frustratingly our own work is still mostly absent). Perhaps this is being rectified before Spotify launches in the US this year.

Spotify remains, however, a one-way tool primarily for labels and distributors. Certainly artists get exposure by having their entire catalogue on the service. But there is no interaction between artist and music fan. Crucially, Spotify has no reporting tool - so the artist never knows who has been listening to their work.

Essentially Spotify is a bespoke radio channel - offering the seemingly limitless choice we have become accustomed to in the digital age.

Last.fm - who have been on the scene longer and boast 30 million users - offer a more personalised service - giving you the ability to not only play your favourite tracks, but also to scan your iTunes and deliver your own music collection when on the go or when working away from your computer.

Last.fm has also better captured the social aspect of listening by including networking capacity, and the "scrobbler" - which satisfies the desire to show off one's listening habits by measuring and displaying plays in your collection.

For the artist, Last.fm offers significantly more potential to reach your community. Artists have control to upload material instantly, give away tracks, advertise gigs, connect with listeners. There is no need to get a digital distributor involved - which allows small artists and labels to come and play. There are also statistics, including demographics so that artists can build a profile of who their audience is. And the service even measures who is listening when listeners aren't streaming - as the scrobbler captures iPod and iTunes offline data. This gives artists and labels hugely valuable insight into their audience.

Soundcloud is a dark horse that might become the niche label's bestfriend (with 100,000 users as at August 2009). More PR tool than streaming service, the site is a sublime Flash experience with embeddable players and instant track distribution. Every DJ, music blogger and maven should be on SoundCloud, connecting directly and getting fresh tracks from the artists they want to hear from - rather than relying on pluggers and PR companies.

SoundCloud's potential is still being realised - but the new mobile app is quite exciting. The opportunity to have a mini FTP on your iPhone with this functionality is revolutionary.

Of course there are other services operating but the three here capture the features that are currently available to the audience and artist. Spotify may be taking all the limelight right now, but is it over offering on catalogue and under performing on the extras that actually help artists to reach their listeners? Perhaps if these services hone what they are really good at we will actually have a handful of great resources to use.

Image from Flickr by Mark Heard

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