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Buying music vs. streaming: What you need to know

The days of grabbing a CD from the local record shop are long gone. Even purchasing digital tracks seems antiquated to many. In an era of streaming services with a monthly subscription that puts a vast library of music in your hand, why even bother with purchasing music?

Not everyone has made the jump to streaming and a few of you may even be reconsidering with the closure of Groove, so we're taking a look at the differences between subscription-based music services and purchasing music yourself.

Do It Yourself

Synology

Synology DS218+ Plex (Image credit: Windows Central)

Owning music means you have access to songs for as long as your copy is in good condition. Having copies of your favorite songs and being able to manually sort them, add information to each track and transfer them to any device you own makes for a great user experience. There's no need for an online connection. Simply locate the file, open it in your favorite media player and enjoy. You're not paying a company for the privilege of listening to your music, and it's possible to use existing products and services you already pay for (which streaming services may not support).

And you have scope to take things further. Take Plex, for example. This service requires a small monthly fee for offline playback and some other benefits, but you can use it for free. Plex allows you to create a home server that allows you to stream and enjoy music on any connected device from wherever you may be (so long as everything is set up correctly). You then have alternatives like Microsoft's OneDrive, allowing you to store all your music and listen to it at no additional cost — portable media players and your trusty smartphone can also house music transferred from a PC.

Music from CD sounds better in most cases.

It's not all rosy, however. It's up you make copies of stored music to ensure you have a backup available in case of cataclysm. Hosting your tracks in the cloud? Better make sure you have some sort of local copy, lest the cloud service shut down and take your files with it. Which, of course means you need to have local storage space for all those songs. If each song is around 3MB, then a modestly sized 10,000-song collection would take up 30GB on your hard drive. If your drive is small, that's precious space — so then you're looking at an upgrade, or an external drive.

There's also the cost of actually buying the music. If every song we purchased was $0.99, that would be just shy of $10,000. That's a lot of money. If you listen to a lot of music and are starting from scratch, you will need to set aside some serious funds or look to a streaming platform for assistance.

Streaming

Spotify Groove

Groove Music and Spotify (Image credit: Windows Central)

Streaming services have been around for nearly a decade and offer consumers an inexpensive way to access millions of tracks from artists. How it works is you pay a flat fee per month for unlimited access. Artists are then paid a small amount depending on how many times their music is played. Said artists do not receive as much upfront as they would if you purchased an album directly.

These streaming services — like Spotify — are incredibly easy to use, offering some intuitive apps for use across numerous platforms, be it Windows, Android or even iOS. There's no need to have ample amounts of free storage space available unless you wish to take advantage of offline playback, and overall it's a much more cost-effective means of enjoying music than traditional purchases.

Enjoy millions of tracks at very little cost.

That's all the good stuff out the way. Just like purchasing music, streaming services also have a few drawbacks. The main one is you never technically own a license to music you add to your library. You're paying the platform for access. If you cease paying for the membership, you'll lose features or access altogether. This also means you cannot move said music across to other devices or services where the streaming platform does not offer support. Also, some artists boycott services altogether.

And if a streaming service closes its doors altogether — like Microsoft's Groove — you'll lose out. While these platforms offer offline playback functionality, they still require an online connection for hooking up an account and downloading said music in the first place. If the app stops working for a while, the service goes down temporarily or you lose connectivity in the home, you could, again, be without access.

Best Music Streaming Services

There's no wrong choice

Groove

If you're a fan of both owning music and having the ability to stream new content from wherever you may happen to be, it's absolutely possible to utilize both means and turn up to volume 11. Services like Spotify even allow local files to be added and then copied to other connected devices for offline playback, perfect if you're migrating from a self-expanding library on your PC to the cloud.

Buying music remains to be the ideal way to retain absolute control over your collection. The only downside is you need to invest in space for storage (and backups!) and payout for the privilege of owning said music. Streaming opens up new avenues of allowing you to access your library from anywhere without any further purchases or hours of configuring servers. It's also more affordable should you download large volumes of tracks.

In the end, it all depends on personal preference, requirements, connection availability and budget. Streaming services continue to absorb market share from physical and digital sales of music, but not everyone is prepared to leave behind the feeling of scrolling through a vast music collection and manually sorting everything. There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to acquiring music.

So, what say you? Do you stream, purchase songs and albums individually, or both?

Rich Edmonds
Rich Edmonds

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

61 Comments
  • Used to use Groove for streaming. Have given up on streaming and gone back to buying cds.
  • You cra cra...
    ........
    Anyways. I want Groove!!😭😭😭😭😭😭
    Spotify has TERRIFIC playback on Windows, but the apps are trash.. Trash, I tell you! Spotisoft needs to bring a totally new UWP app to play!!! Why???? Why can't Microfy just integrate the Spotify service into the beautiful (and functional😒) fluently designed Groove app?.. That would be the got damnb best of BOF worlds!
    .........
    Come TF on!🤤😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😤
  • pandora uwp, and some mp3 from amazon/ microsoft store  but still buy CD'S 
  • 'These streaming services — like Spotify — are incredibly easy to use, offering some intuitive apps...' ROFL! The author of this article is at sarcasm factor 10 and still accelerating.
  • I know, right?  Spotify doesn't work work a darn on the tablet OR the phone.
  • Still using Windows on these devices? Don't expect good apps.
  • Remember.. It doesn't matter which device one uses.. If we find an app in our respective ecosystem we expect it to be working smoothly.. If not everyone has equal right to tell their views.. Mate 🙂🙂🙂
  • LOL
  • I would agree with yhe initial comment in regards to the W10 mobile app. It's garbage and barely works when it decides not to crash. However, the W10 desktop/laptop/tablet Spotify is a solid program/app. I had to switch to Android a couple months ago, and there are some issues on Windows mobile that are on Android as well. Spotify definitely needs to focus more on improving their mobile apps on all platforms, but they are easy to use, intuitive, and have an almost endless library of music. My 950XL definitely made music sound better than the Galaxy S8+ I have now. It could be the EQ settings, but I use the Rock preset on both devices. I might find a Windows 10 user and ask to see their EQ bars and see if I can replicate it on my S8+.
  • I find the sound out of my S8+ to just generally quiter than it was on the 950XL, not sure about "qaulity" though. I don't use the EQ though. My Biggest gripe about sound on the S8+ vs. 950XL or any ohter WP for that matter is that the volume is lowered every time i unplug the jack instead of staying where i left it. I also warns me about volume and hearing loss waaay too much.
  • You're right, very annoying on Android with that volume warning. Also on Windows Mobile it remembers your volume level for whatever Bluetooth audio devices you connect to. With Android it doesn't then you have to increase the volume and you get that warning again. Although I'm forced to use Android for various reasons I absolutely hate it.
  • I had the complete opposite, my 950XL would always revert the bluetooth volume level when I connected and would constantly pop up with hearing warnings. My Pixel 2 XL retains the volume levels and doesn't constantly whinge at me..
  • Streaming only here.  The days of purchasing music are gone the way of the cassette tape.  or even 8 track.   Streaming is easy, cheap and you listen to anything you want.  You can download music to listen to off line if you want and still not cost any more than your monthly sub.  I know it's hard for windows phone people to grasp this idea.  But once away from that dreaded dead end...life is much better!
  • No. You can't listen to anything you want.  I have run across dozens of songs that are in our library that you can't find on any streaming service.  And, quite frankly, I don't feel compelled to pay someone a subscription on the CHANCE I can listen to a song I want.  I have never found a streaming service that I like. Never.  
  • I think the younger generation is eventually going to figure out that everything in life cant and shouldn't be a Subscription. I also have a lot of original music these services cant match or only find crap remakes or remixes. Terrible.
  • yes...we know scuba...you are the ANTI evevrything.    We know....🤡
  • Sorry to tell you this but cassette tapes are making a comeback.
  • Um...seriously?  Where is that a trend?  This is the first I've heard of it.
  • The new Metallica boxset for Master of Puppets includes vinyls, CDs, DVDs and one cassette tape... That's the only I've heard of a cassette comeback 😀 
  • People are starting to use cassette tapes to record music on not so much bands putting them out. The music industry didn't like the fact you could copy music for free. They are now trying real hard to not let you share music for free.
  • Yes...they are coming back just like the steam engine is coming back....probably a few steampunk twats using them...no one in the real world.   
  • Haven't bought music since I moved to Zune pass years ago. At least MS had the convert Groove to Spotify so I still have all my music. I prefer streaming as I don't want to have to manage all that and backups. Also, makes little sense to me to invest in buying 1000's of songs that a majority sit there not being listened to over time.
  • We have a monsterous library.  A lot of our music hasn't been in 'print' for years and you can't find it in any streaming service.  We continue to purchase our music, albeit it's all digital now.  Which is fine.  We converted all our old cassettes to digital as well.  We maintain a server at home with our entire media library.  The server not only backs up to an external drive, but also has its own Microsoft account that we've added to our Office 365 "family".  As a result, our music library is automatically sync'd with OneDrive, and this OneDrive music folder is shared to my wife and I.  This enables us to have solid redundant back ups and 100% accessibility of our entire library.  If we buy new music, we load it on the server, and within minutes it's available on the cloud.  The problem for us is that we purchased all our music on Groove because it required no extra account and it was automatically integrated.  Now we have nothing.  We're now searching for an acceptable alternative for music purchases. We've been unsuccessful thus far.   Oh, and maybe most people don't listen to a majority of their music, some of us do.  When we choose to purchase a project, it's because we like the whole thing, not for just one song.  We don't do playlists.  When we listen to our library it's typically by Album or by Artist.  We listen to the entire thing, not hunt and peck individual songs.  Obviously, we're unique in our preference.  Which is why streaming services suck for us and Groove essentially getting killed is so frustrating.
  • Not unique - I'll always listen to a full album rather than select songs
  • I also listen to entire albums REGULARLY, but i create a LOT of playlists too. Playlists are great for parties, events, workouts, and I actually go even further retro and make my girlfirend mix tapes (CDs) all the time. She loves it since her car doesn't have an Aux jack and it's a great way to give her little presents frequently.
  • Being a fan of progressive rock buying albums makes more sense. Long songs, music continuous between songs, concept albums that have to be listened from start to end... That's how I like my music! Also music on CD is generally of better quality than even a top quality mp3.
  • Spotify is actually pretty good with gapless playback, I listen to a lot of Pink Floyd and song transitions are seamless. This is one area Groove was terrible at.
  • Now....that is A VALID reason to purchase CD.   Sound quality....I do hate the sound quality of itunes music.   But..convenience of listening to ANYTHING I want while travelling trumps Sound quality.  I listen to good stuff on my home system.   Look up PSB stratus GOLD speakers...I have them in my setup.   There is not a better sounding speaker for the money.   I drive them with a pioneer elite recveiver.   The setup sounds great whether it's Jazz or something like Royal Blood....to the latest sci-fi or comedy movie.  
  • Me too.  I am a musician,  I play guitar, piano, bass, drums, keyboards. etc.  I AM A MUSIC NUT.  My wife and I are always flying around the country seeing artists we like.  we pay for the good seats to support them.  We listen to complete Librarys of our favorite artists.   For example we punch in Chris Stapleton and Listen to EVERY SONG.   We do the same for ANY Musician we like.   Don't think you are unique in your music consumption scubadog.   I like ALOT of different genres to....besides crap thats on top 40 now...thats just terrible money making ****.  not music for ART.   
  • Has anyone got Spotify to work on Windows Mobile ?
  • It works fine.. I'm in India so I use VPN 😋
  • It works.. Just needs resetting periodically... It's a nasty, Android of an app, though.
  • This has been my experience.
  • If it were an android of an app,  it would work perfectly and get updates regularly....it's a windows of an app...fanboy.
  • Echoing the others. You need to reset your phone every few days and it works. Kind of like the old days of computers.
  • Physical formats everytime for me. Vinyl first, CD when no vinyl is available (or often as well as). I'll only buy digital if it's available as lossless FLAC. To me, music needs to be heard in the best quality possible, people seem happy with low quality compressed MP3 which sounds rubbish on a good hifi. I don't do any streaming at all
  • Of course, that vinyl only sounds better than a CD until you actually play it once. Then it gets slowly worse with every play. 
  • I own a ton of CDs (and vinyl!). I have ripped most of my CDs and have been "streaming" them off my collection in OneDrive. I also regularly use Pandora (free).  I also have access to Amazon Music, but don't use it too often.
  • For me, switching to a streaming service over getting the actual offline copy and in a lot of cases a physical copy will never happen. There's no way I'm going to submit to the fact that some day an artist that I love to listen to will just suddenly be gone.  Netflix adds and removes stuff all the time.  I'm not sure how often other music services do this, but the fact that it could happen makes it a non-starter to rely on it.
  • I buy my music. Prefer to own it outright, no surprises, no tricks, plus I can play on any device, even my ancient offline mp3 players without hassle. I've been building my mp3 collection for well over 17 years, steadily ripping (and re-ripping) my hundreds of CDs into decent bitrate mp3 files. Still buy audio CDs till today if they are available, then rip them and keep the physical disc just for looks :-)
    OneDrive backup is the next step for pseudo streaming.
  • In the words of Neil Young................Streaming sucks
  • In the words of me, Neil Young sucks. :D
  • In the words of Me...Noirsoft SUCKS!
  • Great article. This is person dependent for sure. I used to buy music but decided to pause that a few years back. I hate the physical space that CDs and such take but what I used to do is to buy music digitally and rip it to a CD myself but only for albums. I think having a bit of each is nice, if you can but it totally depends on your music habits. For me, I'm enjoying listening to anything I want but I really like having access to new music, which is why streaming is easier for me. I have hopped on the streaming boat about a year ago and I still use it almost daily. Buying every new single I like gets costly fast...
  • I'm an ex-musician, I haven't really played in 5 years now and I still can't get the music out of my head. I have CDs and Mp3s but I never listen to them. I have a friend who is still working as a musician and he uses Google Play. It won't let him put some of his own band doing some covers on his phone, he can only buy from Google. YouTube also cut the sound off some of the videos of his band playing because of copy rights. You can legally play any song you just have to give a cut to the copy owners.
  • https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=acQ2ukRNNlM That's my band doing a cover. I'm playing drums.
  • Cool rendition!   have to say...if that's you in your profile picture,  you look COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!
  • Best of both worlds on QOBUZ. Streaming the entire catalogue, and purchasing hi-res 24bit tracks/albums that you know you want to keep. Excellent apps for both Windows and Android. 
  • Can't stand streaming services.  Every time a mood strikes me to listen to a song or watch a movie or show it's never available.  My collection on the other hand never lets me down.  >.>
  • Not much has changed for me. I still buy mp3's and store on Onedrive. Then it's available on all devices to download or stream on Groove.
  • I'll switch to streaming (maybe) once a service can 100% match my CD ripped collection without substituting with a cheap horrible remake/remix.
  • I'm a classic rock guy, so there are only a few hundred songs I like well enough to request by name. I own those or buy them when I realize I want to listen to one I don't own. But many of these go back to CDs I've had since the CD's were new in the late '80s (my digital Led Zeppelin and AC/DC collections were complete long before streaming music was an option, and I had the full Beatles catalog digitally while Apple was still begging for distribution rights). For broader music coverage, free streaming services like Pandora or IHeartRadio (both have great Windows 10 phone apps, by the way) provide everything else. One of my best friends whose life revolves around music much more than mine buys music on vinyl when he can find it, then transfers it digitally to his computer. (To be fair, he also uses pure digital music services, like Pandora, not sure about Spotify.) For both our use-cases, Groove without streaming is still perfect -- we can load our music, play it locally or from the cloud. Works great. I miss that I won't be able to buy new tracks on the MS Store (I'll probably shift to Amazon), and agree with the sentiment that MS is hurting its broader appeal by dropping this part of its ecosystem, but personally I'm not really affected by that and will continue to use Groove as my main music player, with Pandora as my main streaming service for randomized songs.
  • The axing of Groove Music Pass is another great example of why any sensible consumer should shy away from the whole streaming subscription model. You will always, sooner or later, find yourself as the loser. Why? Because you never end up having ownership. You are 100% at the mercy of the media companies deciding whether they want to keep giving you the right to listen to some particular piece of music, or watching a particular movie or tv show. The only sensible solution is to buy your content on physical media, making high quality digital copies that you store locally, and copy them to your cloud storage. I actually literally just yesterday finished ripping all my cd's in wma lossless, and am now streaming them to my phone via OneDrive. CD quality audio, and I own the copies, forever. As far as the storage concerns go, even using wma lossless (around 25MB per song), my whole owned collection is around 60GB, which is nothing in the grand scheme of things. If I were to do this with every song I ever had via Groove Music Pass, my total collection would still be no more than 500GB, and the quality would be far superior to anything you'd ever get from a streaming service.
  • Given the amount of time it takes to rip, tag, and organize a large media collection, I could afford a lifetime of streaming services, thus making "ownership" a moot point for the tracks available on a streaming service.
  • Streaming when not at home and when at home mp3s!
  • I will NEVER EVER stream music. Because I like music. Same goes for films. And food. Some people like the fastness of MacDonalds and Starbucks. I rather eat real meat and drink real coffee. It takes longer but it tastes far better.  Same for music. I prefer to get it on a physical disc and then decide myself which sort of format I want to convert it to and what quality loss I'm willing (or not) to take.
  • Do you listen to music in the car? At the gym? At the office? In any situation other than a pristine acoustically engineered room with $100,000 speakers? If so, then CD vs a high bitrate stream is probably not your weakest link.
  • I have lots of CDs and vinyl that I have already converted to 256K mp3s.   For new stuff I wanna check out before buying, spotify is great.  But for sound quality, no streaming service beats CDs.   Most streamed music is 96K or 160K at best, unless you pay.  Not gonna pay to rent music.   Plus with CDs, you get artwork/credits/notes/lyrics/who plays what/who wrote what, etc.  Plus the CD is the best backup.  
  • I don't mind streaming for "mainstream" music, but there are tons of artists (especially artists outside of the USA who don't sing in English) that just cannot be found on Spotify,m etc.
  • Try Yandex Music
  • I’m surprised on how many people have CDs. I just donated a whole bunch of them since they were just collecting dust in my apt. I’ve been on the MP3 bandwagon ever since it started. I prefer buying music as I will always have a chance to listen to it vs having it removed due to licensing deals in the streaming services.