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Paying for Music: To Buy or To Stream?

Once upon a time, listening to music was simple. You had three options: attend a concert, listen to the radio or pay for a record. MP3s and the internet changed everything. Today’s audience has countless ways to listen to music. Most of these options fall into one of two categories: buying songs or streaming them.

Streaming and Buying

The question of streaming versus buying music is a matter of convenience versus control. For a low monthly fee (usually $10), streaming services allow you access to an entire library of music for any device that supports the app. However, you don’t have direct access to the music files ¾ they’re on a remote server you can only connect to through the app. And if you don’t have Wi-Fi available, you can expect your mobile data bill to balloon. Also, if you’re stuck somewhere without reception, forget about listening to music.

Buying music files or CDs and digitizing the tracks allows you much more control. You can copy your library to as many of your devices as you like, and it will always be there when you need it. Listening in an underground, lead-lined bank vault? No problem. Additionally, you can listen to the music with your choice of media player, whereas streaming services lock you to whatever interface their app uses. However, the amount of music your device can store might be a limitation for those with large libraries. Additionally, paying for albums or songs individually is much more expensive than a streaming service (at first).


In the short term, streaming music is the clear winner in terms of cost. For the price of a single album, you can listen to a new song every minute for the whole month. However, in the long term, you need to ask yourself, “How much different music do I really listen to?” If there’s not a lot of variety in your music choice, in the long run with a streaming service you’re bound to pay over and over for the same songs. For those who tend to stick to their favorites, accumulating a personal library over time is much more economical.


Streaming services have enormous libraries. Name anything that’s been in the Top 40 any time in the last 30 years, and it’s highly likely you’ll find it on at least one of the major streaming services. However, their libraries don’t include everything. If you’re partial to an obscure EP from an Icelandic cover band, you’ll probably be out of luck.

Building your own library by purchasing music? Big fan of foreign deep-cuts from the 80s? As long as you can find a place to buy the tracks, they’re there for you. No doubt about it, when it comes to variety, buying your music outright is the end-all-be-all.

Control and Responsibility

“Control” and “responsibility” may seem like unnecessarily weighty words to be using when talking about music. However, for any serious music lover, they’re quite relevant to the stream versus buy debate. Buying music puts you in charge of your entire library: you’re responsible for keeping it safe and managing it from device to device. While you can transfer MP3s across devices easily in theory, in practice it can be a time consuming headache. What happens if the hard disk you keep your library on fails? Hopefully you’ve got it backed up in more than one place.

Streaming services take this load off your shoulders, but come with their own flaws. What happens if the streaming service goes bankrupt in ten years competing with a newer, better service? Will you lose all the time you spent organizing playlists of your favorite tunes? No one really knows, but the answer is “probably.”

In general, streaming services are close to ideal for the average listener. However, if you’re an enthusiast, buying music is the only way to go. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

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