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There’s a Key Difference Between Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music

These streaming services aren't quite as similar as you might think

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A pair of headphones
Music streaming services don’t all work in the same way.
Photo: Lee Campbell/Unsplash

There are now several music streaming services to choose between, and at first glance they can all seem pretty similar—tens of millions of tracks to stream, mobile and desktop apps, offline caching options, and all the rest. It’s not always clear where the differences are, but here we’re going to highlight one of the more significant ones in three of the biggest services out there. We’ve already talked about bitrate differences, but this has to do with how you use each service.

Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube Music are certainly well known and high profile, and all offer a comprehensive streaming music library plus a ton of useful features. However, the way that music playback works on Spotify and the way that music playback works on Apple Music and YouTube Music is fundamentally different—and if you’ve only ever used one of these services, it’s something you might not be aware of.

Playing music on Spotify

Spotify screenshot
You can control your Spotify music from multiple devices.
Screenshot: Spotify
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You can load up Spotify playlists on a whole host of devices: Phones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, smart speakers, car stereos, TVs, and more. There’s even a web player as well as desktop apps, so you’ve got a choice of options when you’re listening to music on Windows or macOS. Most of Spotify’s functions are available across all of these different devices too.

However, despite all of these device options, you can only play one Spotify playlist at a time. Fire up a playlist on your Windows computer, and the same playlist shows up on Android; start listening to a series of tunes in the TV app and those same tunes get loaded in the web player. Changing playlists on one device does the same action everywhere.

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You can even control playback on one device from a different device, thanks to Spotify Connect: Start playback on a Mac and you can start and stop it from an iPhone, for example. This works fantastically well in certain situations, such as when you’re heading out in the car and want to carry on listening to the same tunes you were just enjoying on your smartphone.

Where it doesn’t work so well is if, say, you want to queue up one playlist in the kitchen and a different playlist in the study. While it only takes a couple of clicks or taps to switch playlists when you switch locations, Spotify won’t remember where you were in each playlist as you move between them—it’s not as convenient as having two playlists on the go simultaneously on two different devices.

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There are certain workarounds: You can put one of your devices into offline mode and use cached tracks, which will enable separate listening that doesn’t sync with your other devices, but does leave you without a connection to the web on that particular device. You can also set up a family account, which gives you separate profiles for individual people, and separate listening activity. Using a single account though, your listening is synchronized across every device where Spotify is installed, for better or worse.

Playing music on Apple Music and YouTube Music

youtube music screenshot
YouTube Music lets you play different playlists in different tabs, simultaneously.
Screenshot: YouTube Music
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Like Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube Music are available on a whole host of devices—Apple even makes an Apple Music app for Android. There’s a lot of support across smart speakers and TV platforms and car dashboards, and both these music streaming services can play in a web browser tab, too. Apple Music also has a comprehensive desktop program you can make use of.

The crucial difference between these two services and Spotify is that your listening is separate on all of your devices. You can queue up one series of albums on your Mac, for example, and a different series of albums on your iPhone. You can even have multiple browser tabs open for YouTube Music at the same time, all playing different tunes.

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This works really well if you regularly jump between different types of music: If you switch between playlists of upbeat pop and lengthy instrumentals at work, for example, you can have each playlist open in a separate browser tab. Your position in each browser tab is remembered, so you don’t have to keep starting again from the beginning.

Where it’s not as good is when you’re jumping between different rooms or different devices: Playback isn’t automatically synced across apps, as it is with Spotify. There are other options for quickly switching the same music between devices, including AirPlay and the Chromecast protocol, but if you open up the app on your phone, you won’t instantly see what you were just listening to on your laptop.

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Those are two quite different ways of managing music streaming—and everyone will have their preference, because they can both be useful. However, it’s something that’s not often mentioned when these streaming services are compared, and it shows that they’re not quite as similar and interchangeable as you might think.