From a niche business to a global phenomenon, music streaming has boomed over the past half-decade. According to the latest industry figures, Britons streamed some 7.4 billion songs over the course of 2013, with the total number for the current year likely to be higher still.
What's more, the number of top music streaming services on offer has also increased markedly over the past few years. In fact, music fans arguably have too much choice, as a number of big names are competing for users.
While all the players offer the same general service, namely the ability to stream music online either for free or for a small monthly fee, there are a few subtle but important differences, not least in the range of artists and songs available and the social functions they offer.
So, before you sign up to one or another, it's worth taking a few minutes to compare the leading names and work out which streaming service best suits your circumstances and tastes. Here's a quick overview of the leading providers:
Arguably the best-known of all online music services, while Sweden's Spotify didn't invent streaming, it certainly brought it to the masses. Indeed, the company now boasts tens of millions of users around the world, many of them happy to pay either £5 or £10 a month to listen to music without adverts being played every few songs.
Spotify's popularity is far from surprising. Being the market leader, it's managed to sign up countless big name artists, many of them not available on other services. Alongside these, it also serves as a platform for countless smaller artists, with its intelligent 'related artists' feature giving users the chance to discover new acts, with recommendations made according to their listening habits. Indeed, when it comes to the number and range of artists on offer, few other providers can even come close to Spotify.
Alongside its leading range of music, Spotify allows used to connect and share music via an easy-to-use Facebook connection, while for the premium monthly price, users can also stream music on their smartphones and also listen to downloaded playlists offline.
On the downside, Spotify no longer provides the best sound quality, though it does offer 320kbps playback for premium users, which is not to be sniffed at for the price and range.
If it's quality rather than quantity you're after, you may want to consider investing in a Qobuz account.
The market newcomer charges up to £20 a month for subscriptions and is yet to offer the range of artists Spotify does. What it does have, though, is 16-bit/44.1kHz streams, the equivalent to putting a CD on. As of the summer of 2014, this sound quality is miles ahead of that offered by any rival providers, while the system dashboard is also incredibly user-friendly and easy to navigate.
Arguably the biggest pretender to Spotify's throne, the computing giant's Play offers a huge music catalogue to access, along with excellent sound quality and an easy-to-use platform.
On the downside, it's yet to offer Spotify's social features, with sharing music with friends not as straightforward and fun, while it is also lagging behind in terms of recommending new artists based on a user's listening habits.
Where Play does come into its own is the way in which the system can hook up with music you already own, with downloaded music automatically integrated, making it much easier to create playlists you like. What's more, thanks to the fact it's owned by Google, buying a track you like from Google Music requires nothing more than the click of a button.
It could be argued that Napster lost its USP when it was forced to start charging users to listen to music. Indeed, if it's just music you're after, then other rivals, including Spotify, Rdio and Google Play, offer a far greater selection of artists and tracks, as well as a better quality of sound.
What Napster is good at is the social side of things. For £5 a month, you can access a host of innovative playlists, most of them accompanied by a few words from enthusiasts, follow friends from around the world and discover new artists.
If it's choice you want, it's hard to look beyond Deezer. While Spotify's 20 million song library sounds impressive, it pales in comparison to the 30 million-plus tracks on offer from Deezer, so you should never have any difficulty discovering something new to enjoy.
It's also well-covered if you're looking to listen on something other than an iPhone or Android device -with support available to BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Smart TVs, Xbox 360, Chromecast and even some in-car systems. Oh, and did we mention it's half the price of Spotify at the moment, at just £4.99 a month?
As with most things in life, it's hard to ignore the wisdom of the crowds. Not for nothing is Spotify the biggest name, at least in the UK, and so if it's ease of use and a great selection of music you're after, you can't go far wrong with this – though Deezer is a well-equipped alternative if the price puts you off..
If, however, sound quality is what you're after, consider spending a bit more on a Qobuz subscription or if you want to share music with friends and open your mind to new discoveries, perhaps give Napster a try.